ABC, National Journal: White House fumbling VA scandal

posted at 2:01 pm on May 20, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

Continuing from Guy’s previous post, let’s ask a question: Just how badly has the White House fumbled the VA scandal? ABC’s Jonathan Karl discovered that an endorsement from the American Legion cited by Jay Carney in yesterday’s briefing was actually a criticism of the shell game Barack Obama and Eric Shinseki played with Robert Petzel. Carney cited the statement nine times, apparently without actually bothering to read it first:

ABC US News | International News

At the White House briefing today, Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly suggested the American Legion had praised the Department of Veterans Affairs for the resignation Friday of top VA health official Dr. Robert Petzel.

It turns out, however, the American legion had issued a statement dismissing the resignation as “business as usual.”

Here’s what Carney said at the White House briefing: “The American Legion said that the group looks at Petzel’s resignation as a, quote, step towards addressing the leadership problem at the VA. So I think that undercuts the assertion that that is not a meaningful development.” …

But the American Legion put out a statement on Friday about Dr. Petzel’s resignation saying almost exactly the opposite of what Carney suggested.

“This move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement. “Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, so his resignation now really won’t make that much of a difference.”

The statement — which can be found on the at the top of the American Legion’s website — goes on to say the real problem is at the top of VA. “Secretary [Eric] Shinseki and Under Secretary [Allison] Hickey remain on the job. They are both part of VA’s leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible.”

National Journal’s Ron Fournier blasts the Obama administration handling of the communications surrounding the VA scandal. He deems it a “20th century” strategy of lying over and over again and assuming people couldn’t check the references for themselves. Just how dumb, Fournier asks, does the White House think we all are?

This was neither a termination nor a housecleaning. It was a scapegoating. For all of its 21st-century savvy in the field of campaign technology, the Obama White House has repeatedly proven that its communications philosophy is stuck in the 20th century. Before the internet gave voters instantaneous access to information, including every public utterance of the president and his team, White House strategists could hope to wear out the truth: If you said a lie enough, people might believe it.

It’s harder to BS the public these days. White House press secretary Jerry Carney still tries.

There was a time when the media would punish a press secretary for lying and/or incompetence. Fournier and Karl seem to still embody that fourth-estate spirit. Most of the rest … not so much, at least not yet.

Caroline Baum noted that the amateurish handling continued today:

Fournier also drives to the point on the scandal itself:

In Obama’s defense, he inherited a dysfunctional VA, and the agency has been overwhelmed by veterans returning from two wars he is winding down. But he pledged to reform the VA after blasting the Bush administration in 2007. Instead of getting better, the health care bureaucracy has worsened and become corrupted. Long delays are covered up and veterans are dying while awaiting care.

In my column today at The Week, I make the same argument and call for a complete housecleaning at the VA, from Shinseki all the way through the political-appointee class. I also point out the massive increase in resources given Shinseki since his appointment over five years ago:

The rapid increase in battle-wounded soldiers in two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) did not get the attention required in the earlier years of the war. In the FY2003 budget, the first that spanned both wars, the VA budget was $56.9 billion,according to OMB data. That was an increase of 26 percent over the $45 billion FY2001 budget that almost entirely preceded the 9/11 attacks that initiated the war in Afghanistan. By the final budget signed by George W. Bush, the FY2008 budget, VA funding had increased 88 percent to $84.7 billion.

Even at that level, veterans did not get the attention they needed. The problem became acute enough that Obama made it an issue early in his presidential campaign. In October 2007, as then-Sen. Obama began to rise to the top of the Democratic Party’s primary field, he told veterans that fixing the waitlist issue was a matter of honor. “When a veteran is denied health care, we are all dishonored,” Obama said. “When 400,000 veterans are stuck on a waiting list for claims, we need a new sense of urgency in this country.” He also promised more resources and better management to fix the problems seen at the VA. “As president, I won’t stand for hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for benefits. We’ll hire additional claims workers.” …

More than five years later, nothing has changed — except the spending. Defenders of the administration have suggested that the scandal is actually a resource issue, but that would be difficult to argue from the spending. Since that final Bush budget of FY2008, the VA budget has grown by 78 percent in six budget cycles, to $150.6 billion. With the single exception of the FY2012 budget sequester, when VA spending dropped 2.2 percent, the agency’s budget has increased by at least 8 percent every year of Shinseki’s tenure. Veterans had every right to expect that the increase in resources meant that the Obama administration intended to rectify the problems that kept them from accessing medical care.

And yet, more than five years later, we are discovering that all of these additional resources have done little to help veterans. Dozens of veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix facility, and we still have yet to discover how many others may have perished while having their appointment requests manipulated by bureaucrats more interested in bonuses than in providing care to veterans. …

Presidents who face leadership failures have an effective option for resolving them: firing Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees involved. It sends a valuable signal to others in federal government that failure actually does have consequences, and allows for some confidence that the same people who contributed to the problem aren’t going to be left in charge of the supposed solution. Obama has been strangely reluctant to use this option in earlier scandals, like the ObamaCare rollout or the use of the IRS to target the administration’s political opponents. With the lives of America’s veterans on the line, Obama has to get the failed leadership team out of the way and bring in fresh eyes and better management to fix the problem rather than cover it up.

It’s time to clean out the press office at the White House, too, and jettison the ridiculous figure Jay Carney has become.

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The VA system uses VistA, which is touted as a model to strive for the world of Health IT. The tools are they, but it looks like they aren’t being used.

lineholder on May 20, 2014 at 2:21 PM

Or they’ve been using the tools, and they do nothing to improve the healthcare experience. (I’m seeing this a lot in the healthcare industry.)

dominigan on May 20, 2014 at 2:32 PM

I’ve been going to the VA since the 80s – at 4 separate VA facilities, and I’ve never heard of it. Nor has it ensured I’ve gotten the proper medications (I’ve caught a number of mistakes in dosages and actual medications), or notified me of the results of various tests, x-rays and other radiological procedures.

Mitoch55 on May 21, 2014 at 1:19 AM

On privatizing single payer,

Going private sector bring NHS hospital back from the brink.

Good article.

lineholder on May 20, 2014 at 2:29 PM

Great article, but look especially at the final grafs:

Conservatives have long suggested that the private sector could improve the service, but have found it difficult to convince the public that these appointments would improve healthcare. Despite its inaction in other areas the coalition government has made major changes in health. They have brought in much more private sector involvement, and will hope that process will see similar turn around at other failing hospitals.

The experience in the Free School programme is that media outlets like the BBC and the Guardian will ignore success stories and instead concentrate on the minority of cases when private involvement goes wrong. This in turn can make these programmes appear unsuccessful.

Ignorance is not stupidity unless you fail to correct it.
You won’t correct your ignorance if you don’t know it needs correction.
You won’t believe it needs correction if you never see any contrary evidence.

This media obfuscation, BTW, is part of the same game-plan as the PC-enforcers and thought-police in universities, as exhibited so blatantly in this graduation season.

If you never see any evidence contrary to your beliefs, then you ought to know something is being hidden from you, and seek it out.
If you don’t seek it out, then your ignorance is due to stupidity.

That’s how dumb they think we are.

* * *

The VA is an incredibly bloated, inefficient organization (even for a government organization). I’m thinking that it should be privatized.

blink on May 20, 2014 at 2:11 PM

Uh we tried that already. Walter Reed and Bethesda Hospitals. That did not work well at all, trust me.

Johnnyreb on May 20, 2014 at 2:36 PM

I’m not sure why you claim the Walter Reed hospital shows that “privatization” didn’t work. It was not, never had been, and isn’t now anything other than a government-run facility, so far as I can tell.
And it looks like there are two hospitals in Bethesda since 2011..

Under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act, Walter Reed Hospital relocated to the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD on September 15, 2011. The facility is now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Were you referring to this 1985 news report on problems at the NNMC? It’s the only one I can find. And it had nothing to do with privatization, although some of the medical personnel were civilian.

(Bethesda, Maryland) Scandal at naval hospital here, where Pres Reagan is treated, over hospital’s hiring and then firing of chief heart surgeon Dr. Donal Billig discussed; allegations following him to Bethesda from Monmouth Med. Center, New Jersey, reviewed. Monmouth chgs. against Billig listed on screen. [New Jersey vp. Justin BOHEMEY – describes warning Navy of Billig’s poor medical performance before they hired him at Bethesda.] Navy audit report criticizing procedures in hiring personnel quoted on screen. Senator James SASSER – criticizes Navy’s lack of medical care.]

More on Sasser’s claims:

Three internal audits of the military medical care system have reported serious deficiencies in appointing and evaluating doctors in the military.

The audits also found that emergency rooms of military hospitals were often staffed by unqualified personnel, that lax drug-dispensing systems allowed some doctors to precribe drugs for themselves or for friends, and that poorly supervised physicians’ assistants sometimes gave improper care without bothering to refer patients to doctors….
These audits, by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, the Naval Audit Service and the Army Audit Agency, were completed last year and were made available this week by the office of Senator Jim Sasser, Democrat of Tennessee, who became interested in military medical care because of complaints from constituents.
At a meeting with the officials this week, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger ”stated clearly and emphatically that he expects the quality of military health care to be of the highest possible standard,” Dr. William Mayer, Assistant Secretary of Defense for health affairs, said in a statement.

Dr. Mayer said Secretary Weinberger had told those at the meeting that health care was a ”top priority” and that whenever medical mischance or accident occurred ”he expects a rapid, appropriate and decisive response by the responsible officials of the military departments.”
All the audits said military health officials were taking steps to rectify the problems found. And a chronology of ”quality assurance initiatives” supplied to Congress by the Pentagon indicated a number of changes to improve medical care.

The audits also found that doctors whose care of patients had been criticized by other doctors or health personnel sometimes escaped any loss of privileges to practice or any adverse reference in their files. The Navy audit found that hospital staff members were reluctant to file reports on unusual or questionable medical incidents and unexplained deaths lest their relationship with the doctor be strained or their medical judgment questioned. [This is just like the situation in civilian hospitals, leading in both venues to cover-ups of incompetent doctors and increases in malpractice suits, which the article mentions later.]

Naturally, once the scandal plays out its appointed time, there is no journalistic follow-up on whether or not the reforms were ever carried out.

Here’s some of what happened at Walter Reed:

The storied hospital, which opened in 1909, was scarred by a 2007 scandal about substandard living conditions on its grounds for wounded troops in outpatient care and the red tape they faced. It led to improved care for the wounded, at Walter Reed and throughout the military. By then, however, plans were moving forward to close Walter Reed’s campus.

Two years earlier, a government commission, noting that Walter Reed was showing its age, voted to close the facility and consolidate its operations with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and a hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., to save money. … a Washington Post investigation in 2007 uncovered shoddy living conditions in an outpatient ward known as Building 18. Troops were living among black mold and mouse droppings while trying to fend for themselves as they battled a complex bureaucracy of paperwork related to the disability evaluation system.

The report drew scrutiny of all aspects of care offered to the nation’s wounded. The scandal embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration and led to the firings of some military leaders.

Afterward, some in Congress pushed for the Pentagon to change course and keep Walter Reed open, but an independent group reviewed the idea and recommended moving forward with Walter Reed’s closure plans.

It concluded that the Defense Department was or should have been aware of the widespread problems but neglected them because they knew Walter Reed was scheduled to be closed. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed and said there was little wisdom in pouring money into Walter Reed to keep it open indefinitely.

“Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st century facilities,” Gates told reporters.

Pierce said the quality of medical care at Walter Reed didn’t suffer, even leading up to the scandal.

“It was administrative issues and housing issues, and the housing issues were significant,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would want to say they weren’t and it shouldn’t have happened, but it was not a quality of care situation.”

AesopFan on May 21, 2014 at 1:51 AM

Aren’t Presidents supposed to FIX sh*t they inherit? I mean, isn’t that the ENTIRE idea? To fix what’s broken?

To hear Team Obama tell it, the only way a POTUS can win at cards is to be dealt 4 aces. Great poker players win with a pair of two’s. That’s what makes them great poker players.

mitchellvii on May 21, 2014 at 2:00 AM

I’d give the VA the same kind of “housecleaning” I would give some other agencies: SHUT IT DOWN.

FIRE THEM ALL. We have the finest health care system in the world (at least if we can avert the impending disaster of ObamaCare), yet “give” our veterans care at substandard, aging facilities that are massively inefficient. As several have pointed out, the delayed and rationed care is typical of government-run health care systems.


In San Diego, the average cardiologist sees and manages as many patients every year as EIGHT at the VA. Do you want your doctor to be on salary, with no incentive to treat you successfully?

Just give veterans vouchers which they can use for all standard health care anywhere in the USA. Any doctor, any hospital, we pay at the full rate (of the lowest total accepted from other patients). It would still be cheaper than maintaining a separate system, and better care for our vets. No more long drives and long waits.

Adjoran on May 21, 2014 at 2:02 AM

Obama and his team are not so dumb for thinking they can get away with lying about everything all the time.

In fact they have done it successfully and were elected and then re-elected.

So the answer is that yes, there are sufficient number of American voters with their idiot friends in the media that just don’t care about the lying or are too stupid to know the difference.

And Ron Fournier, who has been a flack and toady for Obama while at the AP and even now, has a lot of nerve protesting this…in fact he is just like Obama…while at the AP he supported the lying by the Obama team/…..

georgealbert on May 21, 2014 at 7:20 AM

What HAVEN’T they ‘fumbled’?!

easyt65 on May 21, 2014 at 7:56 AM

So they’ve attempted to increase utilization on tools (like electronic medical records) as a way of balancing the risks.

From where I sit watching, EMR is a nightmare. The government requires that medical practices use only “approved” providers. These providers have a sweet gig going. There are constant “fixes” to the programs which MUST be implemented and yet in some cases the most basic patient information cannot be entered into a chart. Hundreds of hours of employee time is spent dealing with the myriad issues that arise…and the providers just keep cashing the checks for government compliance.

It is ugly and getting worse.

2L8 on May 21, 2014 at 8:17 AM

“How dumb does Obama think we are?”

Well, we elected him twice despite his repeatedly telling/warning us exactly what he was going to do. We swallowed his ACA hook line and sinker. We looked the other way on Fast and Furious, AP Fiasco, Fox Employee rights fiasco, IRS, Benghazi, “if you like your Dr./plan you can keep it..” a worse VA mess then he campaigned about back in 2007, economy, “uh/um, I found out about it from the media… and I um.., uh.., am as mad as hell about it.” Yet we still refuse to label President Obama as a Liar in Chief and his sorry a$$ is still allowed to be President?

I guess, pretty daXm dumb.

stuartm80127 on May 21, 2014 at 10:09 AM

How dumb?

Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer.

NoPain on May 21, 2014 at 11:04 AM

I don’t think Obama cares if we are dumb enough to believe him or not. He like the rest of his administration are totally inept in every aspect of life with the exception of one, and that is arrogance. At the press conference this morning did anybody see the anger he claimed to have, all I saw was the BS attitude that is so common to him.

savage24 on May 21, 2014 at 9:58 PM