Eric Newhouse

Eric Newhouse

Invisible Wounds

Finally, an Honest Assessment by the VA

Acting VA Secretary promises swift and decisive action to correct an outrage.

Posted Jun 03, 2014

            In recent weeks, I’ve been biting my tongue and refusing to write about the growing scandal in the VA, triggered by the allegations out of Phoenix about obscenely long wait times, officials who falsified wait time records, and vets who tried to hold officials accountable being denied service the longest.

            My reason for silence is that I have been refusing to participate in a public charade.

            In America, we tend to react to scandals like these without ever fixing anything. There’s a crescendo of blame that leads to investigations until our fickle public attention shifts elsewhere, at which time everything returns to normal. I’ve refused to get involved until now because our vets are too important for this to proceed as normal.

             This scandal followed a predictable pattern until VA Secretary Eric Shinseki tendered his resignation. Then his replacement, Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, took an unusual step with an unusually strong initial statement:

“Not all veterans are getting the timely access to the healthcare that they have earned,” Gibson said. “Systemic problems in scheduling processes have been exacerbated by leadership failures and ethical lapses. I will use all available authority to swiftly and decisively address issues of willful misconduct or mismanagement.”

First, I agree these are leadership issues. Most of the VA personnel I’ve known have been overworked and trying hard. But many of them struggle in conditions their bosses should have been working to prevent. Over the years, I’ve learned that weak and insecure bosses surround themselves with losers who make them look better – and they tend to protect these failures so they don’t look like failures themselves.

So those were encouraging words. But only words.

Still, this is a promise to which we can hold Gibson accountable. For that reason, I’d encourage President Obama to keep the acting secretary in place long enough to see whether he can deliver on that promise.

And there are three main ways we can know whether the acting secretary is living up to his word.

First, the Department of Veteran Affairs Office of the Inspector General has been publishing individual reports this year on specific VA offices, rating them on honest wait times and how well they follow the protocols.  Gibson should act on those reports, firing the VA directors whose facilities are failing and putting directors of the borderline facilities on probation.

Second, the acting secretary should take a look at the obscene amount of merit bonuses paid to VA employees whose job performances don’t justify such rewards. Directors of borderline facilities who have approved exceptional bonuses ought to be given the boot as well.

Third, Gibson should rate all VA facilities by the length of time it takes for vets to get appointments with doctors, then track their improvement in three-month intervals, again removing the directors whose facilities fail to improve.

As I’ve been writing these words, I’ve been interrupted several times by phone calls from a former Army Ranger named Danny Reed II, a West Virginian who had been involved in the “rescue” of Private 1st Class Jessica Lynch from insurgents in Iraq. Reed has known since 2003 that he has seven bulging disks in his spinal cord as a result of his jumps out of helicopters, but he ran into trouble with the VA when the pain became severe this year.

He told me that he waited seven hours in a VA emergency room before doctors sent him home without any help. He waited three months for an MRI, which showed that one of the bulging disks had herniated. And he’s facing spinal cord surgery Thursday in a civilian hospital because he says he can’t get adequate help in a VA hospital.

I hear stories like these all the time, and they’re an outrage. The acting secretary has promised swift and decisive action to correct this outrage, and we all should hold him accountable.          

About the Author

Eric Newhouse

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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