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WBEN Extra: The VA Crisis

As pressure mounts on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, many Americans think he should have to resign over the VA hospital scandal, a new CBS News poll released Thursday shows.

The VA is roiled in scandal over allegations that numerous VA medical centers maintained secret waiting lists to conceal the number of patients who were not able to see doctors within a 14-day period - a goal set by Shinseki to speed up veterans' medical care.

Forty-five percent think Shinseki should have to resign, while 31 percent don't think he should, and 24 percent don't know enough to say. Republicans (56 percent) are particularly likely to say Shinseki should resign.

Americans are also not particularly happy with Shinseki's Commander-in-Chief, President Obama. More Americans disapprove (45 percent) than approve (29 percent) of President Obama's handling of the problems at VA hospitals. Disapproval rises to 71 percent among Republicans

Americans are divided as to who they think is most to blame for the problems at Veterans Administration medical facilities, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and the VA (33 percent) receive more blame than either local VA hospitals (28 percent) or President Barack Obama (17 percent). About a quarter doesn't have an opinion. .


The VA Crisis Explained

It started with a series of complaints from a recently retired doctor about delays in care that may have led to deaths at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. The VA started investigating, similar allegations surfaced in other states, and now the issue has the attention of President Barack Obama.

 Obama said Wednesday he is angered by allegations of misconduct and vowed "to fix whatever is wrong."

Here is a look at some key facts about the issue:


Dr. Samuel Foote, a former clinic director for the VA in Phoenix, started sending letters to the VA Office of Inspector General in December, complaining about systematic problems with delays in care.

Foote, who retired after spending nearly 25 years with the VA, later took his claims to the media, then to Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who announced the allegations at an April hearing.

Foote says up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care. He believes administrators kept the off-the-books list to impress their bosses and get bonuses.

Since Foote's revelations, two more former Phoenix VA employees have made the same claims.


The VA Inspector General's office said late Tuesday that 26 facilities are now being investigated across the country - a significant expansion of the probe from last week. And the White House has taken a much more active role in responding to the VA allegations in the past week. Obama met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at the White House on Wednesday and expressed his support for the retired four-star Army general.

Phoenix administrators vehemently deny the allegations. The VA has so far found no evidence to substantiate the claims after an internal probe.

The Phoenix hospital's director, Sharon Helman, scoffed at the notion that she would direct staff to create a secret list and watch patients die in order to pad her pockets. Helman has been placed on leave while the Inspector General's Office investigates. She has been provided with police protection after receiving numerous death threats.

Some also question the motives of Foote and the others making accusations. One employee, who first raised the concerns publicly a few weeks ago, was fired last year and has a pending wrongful termination lawsuit against the hospital. Before he retired, Foote was reprimanded repeatedly for taking off nearly every Friday, according to internal emails he provided the AP.


Obama has assigned his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to oversee reforms at the agency. Nabors is visiting Phoenix this week to meet with VA staff, and members of Congress are issuing several pieces of legislation to overhaul the agency.

Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, is facing calls for his resignation from some lawmakers. Obama spoke warmly of Shinseki Wednesday, saying the secretary had poured his heart and soul into his job, but said there would be accountability if the allegations of misconduct are proven to be true.


The VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the country, with more than 300,000 fulltime employees and nearly 9 million veterans enrolled for care. Obama said Wednesday that 85 million appointments for veterans are scheduled each year.

The Phoenix claims are the latest to come to light as VA hospitals and clinics around the country struggle to handle the enormous volume. VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico and Illinois, among other states, have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight. An internal probe of a Colorado clinic found that staff had been instructed to falsify records to cover up delayed care at a Fort Collins facility. A nurse at a VA center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was put on leave this month for allegedly telling employees to falsify appointment records.

The VA has acknowledged that 23 patients have died because of problems related to care since 1999, according to an ongoing nationwide internal VA review, which showed that delays often occur when a doctor refers a patient to another physician, such as a specialist. During the same time period of the deaths, more than 250 million of these consults were requested.

The 23 deaths do not include a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, or three patient deaths blamed on mismanagement at the Atlanta VA hospital.

The White House said the VA has made tremendous progress in reducing case backlogs, but that they need to be completely eliminated


Sixty-five percent of Americans and 61 percent of veterans think administrators at VA hospitals deliberately hid information about how long patients had to wait for medical care at these facilities. Among those who have heard or read a lot about the story, this rises to 76 percent.

Americans split as to the root cause of the long wait times for patients.
Forty-two percent think the problems of long waiting times at Veterans Administration medical facilities are the result of not having enough resources to take care of patients, but 41 percent think it's more a matter of these hospitals not properly managing their resources. Republicans are more inclined than Democrats or independents to say the problems are more of a management issue.

Overall opinion of the Veterans Administration itself remains more positive than negative, though positive views have declined since last fall. Half of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Veterans Administration (an 18 point drop from the 68 percent favorable rating the Pew Research Center recorded in October 2013).

Veterans hold slightly more favorable views towards the VA than Americans overall. Fifty-six percent of veterans view the VA favorably.

Sixty-five percent of Americans and 61 percent of veterans think administrators at VA hospitals deliberately hid information about how long patients had to wait for medical care at these facilities. Among those who have heard or read a lot about the story, this rises to 76 percent.

The House has approved a bill to give the Veterans Affairs secretary more authority to fire or demote senior executives at the agency.

The bill responds to a growing furor over allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals. The department's inspector general says 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment.

Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida said VA officials who have presided over mismanagement or negligence are more likely to receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews than any sort of punishment.

The bill was approved Wednesday, and now goes to the Senate.

The White House says it supports the goal of seeking greater accountability at the VA but has unspecified concerns about the legislation.

 The growing furor over veterans' health care moved to the political campaigns Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired.

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, was among those calling for Shinseki's removal amid investigations of VA patients dying while awaiting treatment and falsified appoint records.

Democrat Rick Weiland, who is running for South Dakota's open Senate seat, also called for Shinseki's ouster, as did a Democrat running for an open House seat in New Jersey and two Republicans challenging vulnerable Democrats in northern Minnesota House districts.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., added to the calls for Shinseki's resignation, saying the VA crisis was "a national embarrassment" that requires new leadership.

Shinseki, 71, said Thursday that he intends to remain on the job. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," he told reporters at the Capitol. The former Army general and chief of staff added that "this is not the first time" he has faced controversy in his career.

Grimes, the Kentucky Senate candidate, said the government had defaulted on a "solemn obligation to our veterans. I don't see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place," she said.

Grimes has tried to distance herself at times from President Barack Obama, who is largely unpopular in her state, and she demonstrated her independence by calling for a cabinet member's removal.

McConnell said earlier this week that the predicament at the VA was "a management problem, not a money problem," adding, "it's obvious that the management team needs to be changed."

The inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department says 26 VA facilities nationwide are under investigation, including the Phoenix hospital at the center of allegations about treatment delays and secret waiting lists intended to hide delays in care.

The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the Obama administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said the campaign was pleased Grimes had joined in calling for a change in VA management. Moore criticized Senate Democrats for blocking a House-passed bill that would have made it easier to fire or demote senior VA executives.

Senate Democrats said they are working on their own legislation to make it easier to fire or demote executives at VA.

"I think what the House has done is not unreasonable," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday, adding that he is confident the Senate will act quickly on a measure being pushed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The political maneuvering came as the Senate Appropriations Committee added language to a military construction spending bill that, like the House proposal, would give the VA secretary broader authority to remove low-performing officials.

"The veterans are not getting the medical care they need," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee "Some heads need to roll."

White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said Thursday the Obama administration supports the goal of the House bill, but added, "We do have some concerns that some provisions could result in significant litigation."

The administration is working with Congress on better language, Carney told reporters.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that reports of "horrors" at the VA were "appalling."

His voice cracking, Boehner said veterans "are men and women who served our country, and we've not just let them down, we've let them die. This is awful stuff, and someone ought to be held accountable for it."

Boehner has not called for Shinseki to resign, but he said, "I have to admit that I am getting a little closer" to doing so.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, called allegations of misconduct at the VA "completely and utterly unacceptable" and urged a broad review of services for veterans.

Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was open to an idea advanced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to allow veterans to receive medical care at private hospitals.

"We can't have another backlog of people waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic in a region," she said. "We have to think in a big way because this is a very big challenge."

Obama's deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, was in Phoenix Thursday to meet with hospital staff. The director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System has been placed on leave while the inspector general investigates claims that up to 40 people died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix.

In the South Dakota Senate campaign, Weiland forcefully called for Shinseki to step down. But he also criticized House Republicans for temporarily shutting down much of the government last year.

"Anyone who does not understand that it is the penny-pinching stupidity and arrogance of the `shut it down' politicians in Congress that is the real problem is either blind or willfully ignorant," Weiland said in a statement Thursday.

Among the Republicans calling for Shinseki's resignation is Mike McFadden, who hopes to take on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

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