Veterans’ Affairs Controversy

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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has resigned, the latest in a series of events that started with allegations that 40 veterans may have died while waiting for medical care at the Phoenix VA hospital. Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic has been writing about the issue and will bring us up to date.

Ted Simons: A story that began with a whistleblower's allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix V.A. hospital resulted in the resignation last week of U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. "The Arizona Republic's" Dennis Wagner helped break the story and he's here now to bring us up to date. Good to have you here. Thanks so much for, again, you are in front of this story all the way. We love having you on to get the latest. The response, whistleblower response, response in general to the Shinseki resignation.

Dennis Wagner: The response from Sam Foote the first whistleblower, certainly the most significant to come out, was actually very subdued. It was basically you don't celebrate being right about veterans not getting the care they deserve. The larger and more significant response in terms of the future I think was there may have been a problem with Secretary Shinseki and his oversight of that agency, his control of that agency, but this is not just about one guy in charge. This is about a bureaucracy, it's about an institution, and I think there's a pretty widespread view that there needs to be reforms in addition to change of leadership.

Ted Simons: So we're talking culture as much if not more so leaders?

Dennis Wagner: We're talking culture, we may be talking legislation, policy, there's a whole gamut of different areas that I think people are looking at to see how can we fix a broken system.

Ted Simons: Before we get to that and the ideas for reform, what changes, what tangible changes are there now at the Phoenix V.A. hospital?

Dennis Wagner: The three of the top -- They call their leadership group of five the PENTAD. Two of the members of the PENTAD, the director Sharon Helman and deputy director Lance Robinson have been placed on administrative leave. An additional person who they haven't named has been placed administrative leave. In addition, the director of the southeast regional V.A. health care system, Susan Bowers, was a planning to retire in a month, and just last week she retired early. In addition to that, right now there were 1,700 patients identified in an inspector general report who were not on the electronic waiting list, so they were basically this so-called secret list if you want to put it that way. Those 1,700 are being contacted by phone and if they can't reach them by phone, by registered letter or certified mail, I can't remember which, and told here's our situation, you were off the list, we're going to try to get you in as soon as we can, when would be a convenient time to see you? We're still getting information on how successful they've been to achieve that.

Ted Simons: And again, these are 1,700 people who signed up for initial appointments and never made it on any list?

Dennis Wagner: They were on a list, but it wasn't the electronic waiting list that is the formal list --

Ted Simons: They should have been on.

Dennis Wagner: They were kind of left off that.

Ted Simons: My goodness. OK. Steve Young is still the interim director?

Dennis Wagner: Steve young is the interim director while director Helman is on administrative leave.

Ted Simons: And we do not know what happens to director Helman?

Dennis Wagner: Before he was -- Before his resignation, Secretary Shinseki on Friday gave a talk to a veterans group, and during that talk he said they were in the process of doing something about the Phoenix leadership. But he didn't say what and we have not learned yet what that was about.

Ted Simons: As far as you mentioned Susan Bowers, again, who is she, it -- The initial report is she abruptly left the job, but you're saying she was going to retire in a month anyway?

Dennis Wagner: She abruptly left a month early, but she was going to retire anyway. She was the regional director of what's called (inaudible) 18, it's a southwest regional health care network. And it is kind of the umbrella organization over the Phoenix V.A. as well as V.A.s in New Mexico and west Texas.

Ted Simons: OK. Let's get back to reforms as you referred to earlier. What is being discussed? It sounds as though there are options all over the place right now. Give us an example of what's being discussed.

Dennis Wagner: One example that's concrete is there are bills right now that have been offered in the House and the Senate to increase the accountability in the V.A. by creating a greater authority to fire employees for wrongdoing or negligence or that kind of misconduct within the V.A. There's a perception that the civil service system has created such protections for managers, especially middle managers, that there are not able to root out that those who don't belong there anymore.

Ted Simons: Is there a way to get more information to the Eric Shinsekis, the next Eric Shinseki, if you will, so they would even have the opportunity to make those moves? It sounded like he didn't know what was going on.

Dennis Wagner: It was always difficult for me to understand what the secretary was saying, because it seemed like it wasn't in touch with his own -- The inspector general reports that had come to him about this wait time issue, repeatedly over the past seven or eight years, the GAO report that outlined it in numerous facilities the same problem. So it was always hard for me to understand whether he wasn't being clued in or he was acting oblivious to it, so I don't know the answer. But I think in any organization that down the chain of command accountability reflects how well the boss has shown his colors.

Ted Simons: Or at least is paying attention to what's going on there. Are there thoughts of just simply overhauling the whole thing?

Dennis Wagner: I have -- I'm not sure if it's considered an institution or an agency too big to die, or too big to be killed or however you want to put it. If you just tried to start all over, you'd end up starting all over with what you had before to a large extent, because it's a bureaucracy that can't change that much. You've got thousands of employees, millions of records, millions of clients. And so I think it's more talk about reform, and that could be in the form of do we reevaluate how much care we're giving to how many veterans, how expansive the benefits are here? Do we reevaluate how much care or how we focus that care, are we only going to focus on areas were we're really good, and far more to private care doctors and that kind of thing? There's a bunch of options there, and I think nobody is clear on where it's going.

Ted Simons: Could we be going in the direction of a criminal investigation from the Justice Department?

Dennis Wagner: I think it's possible. The Inspector General team that's been here and has already come out with an interim report that was pretty damaging, that team made it clear that they have criminal investigators and that they're in contact with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Justice Department. So it's possible, but, you know, you're going to have to show not only wrongdoing, but probably some knowing wrongdoing and we're going to see where that goes.

Ted Simons: What is next in all this?

Dennis Wagner: I think it -- I haven't been able to predict this very well. Events have surprised me a number of times. One thing that's next is the President of the United States has to select a new boss for the V.A. That's certainly going to be a big decision. Then the final I.G. report, the Inspector General report comes out in August, and both houses, the committees in both houses, the V.A. committees have announced they're going to hold hearings, and those hearings could be really telling too.

Ted Simons: Last question before you go, from someone who you were literally there the start of this thing, in terms of breaking the story out here, it's obviously a national scandal now. It's obviously -- We had 40-some-odd different V.A. systems at least now being looked at, V.A. hospitals and facilities. Is there still a Phoenix face on this particular scandal?

Dennis Wagner: In terms of a human face in Phoenix, unless it's Sam Foote, the first whistleblower, I'm not sure that there's kind of that iconic image. But I think in the minds of most Americans, it's a national scandal first, but then kind of as a secondary line, it's a national scandal that obviously started in Phoenix and it's got that nexus to it still.

Ted Simons: Yeah, alright. Well, continued good work, thank you so much for your work, and we'll continue reading to find out what is next on a scandal that is just one of those things that seems to grow legs all the time. Good to have you:

Dennis Wagner: Thanks for having me.

Dennis Wagner:Journalist, Arizona Republic;

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