By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media
While the Obama administration may have rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic, in this case the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is still a sinking disaster. On March 13 President Barack Obama traveled to the Phoenix VA medical center, which CNN’s Anderson Cooper called “ground zero in the scandal, a place where as we reported, at least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments.” “You know, some things have changed, no doubt about it,” said Cooper on his show. “There has been progress.”
After Eric Shinseki resigned last year in the midst of the VA scandal, the administration appointed Bob McDonald to take his place. But it is hard to argue that the situation has gotten better for our veterans. It seems to have gotten worse—or, at the very least, the worst abuses are now coming to light.
The media’s claim that there has been progress toward solving the maltreatment of veterans only serves to bolster the administration’s reputation at the expense of our former soldiers’ ongoing neglect and suffering.
Indeed, the CNN broadcast was dedicated to exposing the fact that, as correspondent Drew Griffin reported, “Thousands of patients at the greater Los Angeles Veterans Medical Centers have been waiting more than three months just for an appointment.”
Cooper ran tape of Representative Dan Benishek (R-MI) asking Dr. Sky MacDougall how long the average wait time for a new patient is at the Greater Los Angeles Medical Center. Dr. MacDougall replied that “The average wait time for a new patient right now is about four days.”
Griffin then said, “That statement is simply not true. According to these VA documents, and a half dozen doctors and administrators within the hospital who spoke to CNN, the average wait time is 10 times greater. It’s not four days. It’s 44 days. The delays are even taking place at the Los Angeles Clinic for Mental Health where documents show more than 300 veterans seeking mental health care have been waiting 30, 60, even 90 days.”
Griffin pointed out that Dr. MacDougall told Congress that the average wait time for mental health patients was also just four days. But, he added, “Again, according to VA documents and a half dozen sources interviewed by CNN, that is not true…as of March 1st new mental health patients in Los Angeles are waiting an average of 36 days just to get an appointment.”
“You know…we tried to get an explanation,” said Griffin. “They simply will not talk to us. They won’t explain their numbers to us.” Congressional investigators are now looking into this report.
Some in the media are taking note of the ongoing VA scandal. But, as with FEMA’s scandal, and even this recent CNN report, the media act as if the Obama administration’s leadership has nothing to do with the ongoing corruption and mismanagement. Yet CNN does deserve credit for exposing the incompetence and dishonesty within the system.
The President admitted the same day as this show aired that there were deficits with the way the VA is being run, but asserted that this was a case of bad apples and systems run awry. “…because just the fact that there have been a few bad apples, mistakes that have been made, systems that aren’t designed to get the job done, I don’t want that to detract from the outstanding work of a lot of people inside this organization,” he said.
It’s easy to blame bad apples and broken systems, just as the President blamed a few Cincinnati IRS workers for the IRS scandal. But as the VA scandal drags on, some in the media should start to at least suspect widespread corruption and mismanagement at the very top levels—despite their ongoing efforts to keep any scandal, of any size, from tarnishing Obama’s legacy.
News regarding the mismanagement of VA facilities has surfaced each month in 2015. In some cases these reports expose how the corruption is still costing veterans’ lives.
“Doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Tomah hand out so many narcotic painkillers that some veterans have taken to calling the place ‘Candy Land,’” reported Aaron Glantz of The Center for Investigative Reporting for the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel in January. “They call the hospital’s chief of staff, psychiatrist David Houlihan, the ‘Candy Man.’” Patients would sometimes lose their narcotics five times and still request refills, alleged the hospital’s former chief pharmacist, who left in 2013, according to Glantz.
Houlihan “was disciplined by the Iowa Board of Medicine for being ‘inappropriately engaged in a social relationship with a patient,’ hiring a current or former patient and bringing a patient’s medicine home with him,” and, according to Glantz, “downplayed” the discipline in an interview as part of a “contentious” divorce.
After this became news, Houlihan was placed on administrative leave and “the VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have launched separate probes into allegations against the hospital,” according to the Associated Press.
In other words, the VA is spending its time putting out fires across the country as they emerge.
But Glantz’s January reporting actually alleged a bigger problem: “runaway opiate prescription practices throughout the VA health care system.”
And in Colorado, Denver VA Medical Center Director Lynette Roff retired on March 1. News reports had revealed that her facility had a secret list of veterans waiting for appointments at a sleep clinic back in 2012.
“Veterans on the sleep lab list were waiting for overnight testing of sleep disorders, including potentially deadly sleep apnea,” reported Melissa Blasius for 9News last month. “Roff says her employees did the right thing in 2012, transferring veterans’ sleep lab appointment requests to the VA’s official Electronic Wait List,” she reports.
Roff pointed to an internal investigation as proof that there were no ongoing secret lists at the Denver VA and blamed a “fragmented process” for the original practice.
Yet Roff gave her staff the following warning: “Once you talk to the media, you are on your own …The VA does not support you, and you are not representing the organization. The only thing you are representing is yourself, and then, once you are in hot water, nobody will help you.”
What, exactly, did she want kept from the public?
Widespread failures across states and throughout the VA system demonstrate that the administration is failing to fulfill its basic obligation to provide adequate care for those who sacrificed everything to go to war so that other American citizens don’t have to. Disrespect for their resulting conditions is disrespect for their great sacrifice.
But the debacle in Colorado extends beyond Roff’s mismanagement, or secret waiting lists, or individual patients. It runs bigger.
“The VA’s aging Denver hospital is due to be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical center in Aurora,” reported The Denver Post in February. The Washington Post reports this month that the VA originally estimated the cost of the hospital to be $328 million.
Now the VA is asking for a project “by far the most expensive in VA history,” according to Emily Wax-Thibodeaux of the Post—with a new estimated price tag of $1.73 billion for just one facility.
“The hospital is one of four VA medical center projects—including sites in Las Vegas, Orlando and New Orleans—that were listed as behind schedule and over budget, with a total cost increase of $1.5 billion and an average increase of $366 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2013,” she reported on March 18.
Last week, Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called for the firing of two leaders involved in this VA project. “There is no way around it: in order for VA reform to succeed, those who caused the department’s massive scandal must be purged from the payroll. If that doesn’t happen, it will only be a matter of time before we’re talking about the next VA scandal,” asserted Rep. Miller on March 13.
All of this makes the latest unwanted attention seem like chump change. It was revealed this week that Diana Rubens is being paid $288,000 in “relocation payments” to move 140 miles from Washington, DC to Philadelphia, where she will head up the VA regional benefits office, which, as Chuck Ross wrote for The Daily Caller, is one of many benefits offices around the country “currently being investigated over benefits claims.” Last year Rubens was paid $181,000. Chairman Miller said that “For VA to pay such an outrageous amount in relocation expenses at a time when the department is continually telling Congress and taxpayers it needs more money raises questions about VA’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, transparency and true reform.”
The VA scandal never really resolved itself, even if the media spotlight conveniently moved on. This issue is clearly a pressing one for both Congress and the administration, and deserves more coverage than the occasional news report by a mainstream media more interested in safeguarding Obama’s legacy than holding our leaders accountable.