The fate of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was inevitable as the fire of scandal spread beneath him day by day. The final spark was the internal audit report he personally delivered to the president on Friday accompanied by his resignation.
The first phase of the audit, covering the VA’s largest facilities, found that more than 10 percent of employees interviewed say they were instructed to falsify wait-time records. Some were told to enter incorrect scheduling information into computers. Others said they kept separate unauthorized paper lists.
The gambit was to make wait times seem shorter to meet a goal of 14 days, which was established three years ago. Before that, the goal was 30 days. The audit noted that the 14-day goal was unrealistic. However, bonuses were tied to the new goal, and employees were pressured to game the system.
The scandal first emerged at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, thanks to a whistle-blowing doctor who said as many as 40 patients may have died while waiting for appointments. As it turns out, the wait-time scheme was widespread, but Shinseki was caught unaware. Because of his sterling military service, members of Congress were willing to cut him slack. But his credibility was deeply damaged when the breadth of the problem became apparent.
Shinseki directed the agency for five years, which is the longest term of service since the VA was elevated to the Cabinet in 1989. He should’ve had a better handle on the issue, especially since problems with wait times were communicated from the Bush administration to the Obama administration during the transition.
The VA has long suffered from ineffectual leadership. The agency has had 12 directors in 25 years, and the revolving door at the top has been a bad match for a bureaucracy in need of a strong, consistent hand.
An Army Times editorial describes the situation well:
“In many respects, to walk into many VA centers today is to walk into the 1950s, as staffers push paper amid crowded waiting rooms and facilities in disrepair. The VA essentially has become a stodgy federal jobs program that is in deep need of new talent with modern skill sets and the cutting-edge technology to do their jobs swiftly and effectively. The need for investment in IT updates, in particular, has long been critical and today is more dire than ever.”
We don’t send troops off to war with outdated weaponry, but we do send them into a relatively primitive system when they come home.
The VA has been led by one good soldier after another. But it needs a dynamic turnaround artist who isn’t afraid to shake up the bureaucracy and hold Congress and the president to their promises.
Effective change requires much more than Shinseki’s resignation. It will take a sustained battle.