WASHINGTON – Predictably, retired army general Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, resigned, because of the huge scandal involving the VA. Sadly, it has now clearly emerged that senior staff at several Veterans Administration medical facilities routinely falsified wait time records in order to make themselves look compliant with the rules, this way receiving performance bonuses.
Very simply, it would appear that VA senior staff, (this would include several administrators in charge of more than 20 medical facilities), kept fake log books in which they recorded fake numbers regarding the wait time for medical appointments. This way their facilities appeared to be in full compliance with official VA guidelines, while veterans theoretically entitled to care waited for months and months. Allegedly some of them died as they were waiting to see a doctor.
Bonuses to everybody
But, while by itself egregious, this “cooking the books” practice aimed at hiding chronic disservice is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. On account of their stellar (false) records they created, the same people who kept the fake log books received bonuses.
The performance bonuses were awarded by VA senior staff to other senior staff. Obviously this was part of an insiders’ game in which everybody knew the truth about the fake logs; but they kept robbing taxpayers anyway by distributing totally undeserved extra compensation to one another.
Union staff paid for not working
And there is more. Some VA Department employees who also serve as senior union representatives do not do any work whatsoever, while collecting their paycheck. They are excused from showing up, because their union responsibilities take precedence.
Bogus disability claims
And we are not finished. The same VA that in practice denies care to veterans, as it makes them wait for months before they can see a doctor, at a different level recognizes as legitimate entirely bogus disability claims. This is done on the basis of an established “presumptive disability” decision-making process.
This means that, in a most liberal fashion, VA physicians agree that if, for instance, you served in Vietnam in the 1970s and today you have a heart condition, the “presumption” is that your heart disease is somehow a consequence of your military service. On the basis of this “presumption” you are entitled to disability benefits, even though in most cases there is zero medical evidence about any “cause and effect” relationship between military services and health conditions that ensued decades later.
Isn’t that nice? It is easy for VA doctors to be liberal in awarding taxpayers’ money to undeserving veterans. And this helps politically, because veterans organizations are happy when their members get extra cash and therefore they will not stir political trouble on other matters.
And then there are reports of a brisk business involving stolen pain killers and other drugs at some VA medical facilities. And there are also cases of medical equipment stolen from some VA hospitals, without any serious investigation. And we could go on and on.
Shinseki is the scapegoat
Given all this mess and the uproar it caused, it is not surprising that Secretary Eric Shinseki had to go. After all, he has been in charge of this utterly dysfunctional VA Department since the very beginning of Obama’s first term, (January 2009). The notion that Shinseki could not take corrective actions because he knew nothing about this gigantic mess at the very least raises questions about his management abilities.
That said, it is obvious that this level of corruption at the VA Department cannot be explained only by Shinseki’s incompetence. We are looking at a cluster of systemic problems that metastasized over many years.
In today’s America, no accountability
And this simple reality opens relevant questions. How is it possible that all this happened in the United States of America? The US is supposedly a solid democracy built around the principle of accountable government. And supposedly we know how to hold people accountable. After all, America is the country that invented, or at least perfected, state of the art management systems.
We know everything about audits, third party controls and monitoring and evaluation of every possible activity. We have a public administration system in which every department has a robust Inspector General Office, while the Federal Government created powerful watchdogs, such as the General Accountability Office, (GAO).
Besides, the US Congress has its own oversight mechanisms through Committees and Sub-Committees that have jurisdiction on practically every governmental activity.
And finally we have a free media with countless investigative reporting units composed of eager journalists who can go and look for wrongdoing almost everywhere.
And yet, all these “defenses” notwithstanding, we allowed this stunning level of misconduct to breed and expand at the VA, probably for decades.
Declining ethical standards
I do not know how all this happened. But I know one thing. If and when corruption is viewed by those who practice it as routine and normal, while those who are supposed to audit, review and check are distracted or purposely look the other way, then we have entirely lost our moral compass.
Please do remember that the Soviet Union imploded when it became obvious that a similar mixture of corruption, false records, fake statistics, lies and incompetence prevailed not in this or that agency, but throughout the entire country.
If this is the new norm, we are done
Mercifully, we are not there –yet. But the very fact that different administrations, Democrats and Republicans, until today allowed this level of corruption and disservice at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a very bad sign of declining ethical standards.
Chances are that, if we start snooping around, we shall find rot in many other places. Getting rid of hapless VA Secretary Shinseki is easy. But, while politically expedient, this is certainly not the solution to a much broader problem.