Advocates Want Someone To Be Accountable For Veterans' Care

NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting about allegations of delayed health care by the Department of Veterans Affairs and what it would take to fix it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the VA, we're joined by Aaron Glantz. He's been reporting on veterans since the Iraq War, and he now covers veterans' issues for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aaron, thanks for being with us.

AARON GLANTZ: Oh, it's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Senator Blumenthal said that these problems are bigger than VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. As someone who's been covering the VA in depth for a long time, do you think it would make a difference if Shinseki stepped down?

GLANTZ: Well, I think that the issue that people have with Secretary Shinseki is not that these scandals are necessarily his fault. It's more that he's been in this chair as Secretary of Veterans Affairs for six years now and has not done anything about these problems, which are of long-standing. So 2007, 2009, 2012 we had Inspector General's reports saying that the VA was cooking the books on how long veterans actually were waiting. So these problems are not new.

MARTIN: The Secretary issued a statement Friday saying, quote, "The VA is redoubling its efforts with integrity and compassion to earn your trust," this issue the statement issued to all veterans. You've been talking with different veterans groups this past week. What are they telling you? Are the optimistic that the VA is now intent on fixing the problems?

GLANTZ: Observers, veterans groups, advocates, veterans themselves are looking for decisive action, and they're looking for people to be held accountable. And when President Obama spoke about this earlier in the week after meeting with Secretary Shinseki at the White House and did not announce that anyone was going to be dismissed, people find it very discouraging.

MARTIN: Most people agree that once you're in the VA healthcare system, the care is great. It's the getting in that's hard. And there's been a notorious backlog of claims that the VA has yet to process. You've been following this thread of the story. Is that backlog improving?

GLANTZ: The VA has two main functions - to provide health care and to provide benefits, compensation for people wounded in the war who can't work because they're disabled. At the Center for Investigative Reporting, we revealed last year that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits had increased by 2000 percent under President Obama. And despite more than half a billion dollars being put towards a computer system, more than 90 percent of the claims remained on paper.

So after we did that story, the VA responded. Now we have a national scandal on the other main thing that the VA does, provide healthcare. And a lot of, you know, veterans groups and advocates, they're watching Secretary Shinseki and they're asking themselves, why does it take a national scandal to get the administration's attention?

MARTIN: Is this a matter of resources when it comes to being able to provide timely healthcare? I mean, I understand there's a new VA hospital set to open in Las Vegas, but it's the first one since 1995.

GLANTZ: There's no question that we need to put money towards solving this problem. On the other hand, the VA's budget has increased by 40 percent under President Obama. And members of Congress are worried about - is the administration spending it wisely?

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to set aside your journalist hat for a second and ask you for a prescription as someone who's looked at this problem for many years. What is the solution, then?

GLANTZ: The primary step that needs to be taken is a cultural change at the agency which is charged with caring for our veterans. It starts at the top with the secretary. It goes to the undersecretaries and the other leaders in Washington and then all the way out to the directors of the hospitals and clinics across America, their staff, all the way down to the receptionist who's going to greet the veteran when he walks in the door and be greeted with open arms, be helped to get his appointment instead of being given some kind of bureaucratic runaround.

And it's a very difficult thing to do. There's over 300,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

You know, a number of individuals, when Secretary Shinseki came on talking about the need for this kind of cultural change, were very optimistic that he would usher it in. And I think that now here we are, you know, six years later and that kind of cultural change obviously has not happened.

MARTIN: Aaron Glantz. He covers Veterans Affairs for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Thanks so much, Aaron.

GLANTZ: All right. Thank you.

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