Why the blame-Bush effort on VA will backfire

Prior to Barack Obama finally taking some executive action in the face of incompetence and scandal, Mother Jones attempted to let him off the hook for it. Mariah Blake offered a “scoop” on wait lists and backlogs by noting what no one denies — that they got out of hand during the Bush administration:

President Barack Obama and his administration have come under fire following a string of revelations about the huge backlogs of patients at Department of Veterans Affairs clinics and the underhanded tactics many of them used to hide the long wait times for medical care. As of Thursday evening, more than 100 lawmakers were calling on Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to step down. But according to VA inspector general reports and other documents that have gone overlooked in the current firestorm, federal officials knew about the scheme at the heart of the scandal—falsifying VA records to cover up treatment delays—years before Obama became president. VA officials first learned of the problems in 2005, when George W. Bush was entering his second term, and the problems went unfixed for the duration of his presidency.

Er … yeah. We actually knew about it at the time, too, and so did the major candidates running for office in the 2008 presidential cycle. John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama — who reminded everyone today that he sat on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee at the time — all criticized the Bush administration for the problems of long wait times, the lack of accountability, and the poor service provided to veterans. McCain proposed a reform of the VA, while Obama proposed spending a lot more money and putting a lot more focus on it.

That was almost six years ago, and Obama has been in charge for more than five years, as was Eric Shinseki. Congress provided an avalanche of new funding to the VA, an increase in annual budgets of 78% during Obama’s term, amounting to $235 billion in additional spending over the FY2008 baseline budget of $84.7 billion. Obama appointed Shinseki because of those problems and the former 4-star general’s reputation for bucking authority to get things done.

Five years and four months later, Obama offered this excuse for failure today:

You know, he described to me the fact that when he was in theater, he might have to order an attack just based on a phone call from some 20-something-year-old corporal, and he’s got to trust that he’s getting good information, and it’s life or death. And I think he is deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him and that the structures weren’t in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it. …

[A]s Ric Shinseki himself indicated, there is a need for a change in culture within the VHA and perhaps the VHA as a whole — or the VA as a whole that makes sure that bad news gets surfaced quickly, so that things can be fixed.

Ahem. Obama was talking about the “bad news” in 2007. Nor was that the only warning internal to the administration:

Let’s not forget, too, that VA executives in the Obama administration have been repeatedly warned – in the transition in 2008, and in writing in 2010, and 2012 – of wait-list fraud, and did nothing about it.

In 2013, there were more questions arising about wait-list fraud that made it into the media. The Washington Examner ran a five-part series on the atrocious levels of service at the VA in February, including one specific story on VA cooking the books on wait times.  Jake Tapper reported on it for CNN in March 2013, noting that hundreds of vets had waiting for more than a year to get medical attention. In fact, the number of those waiting that long leaped dramatically between Obama’s inauguration and the end of 2012, four years into his presidency:

The problem with processing benefits claims for veterans has gone from bad to worse under the Obama administration. One VA office in North Carolina had claims stacked so high the building was at risk of collapsing.

A recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that since President Obama took office, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits jumped from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 this past December. That’s a more than 2,000 percent increase.

In November 2013, CNN again reported on the long wait times — and the fact that the VA knew about them and was doing nothing to solve the problem:

Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found.

What’s worse, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the problems and has done almost nothing to effectively prevent veterans dying from delays in care, according to documents obtained by CNN and interviews with numerous experts.

The problem has been especially dire at the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. There, veterans waiting months for simple gastrointestinal procedures — such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy — have been dying because their cancers aren’t caught in time.

The VA has confirmed six deaths at Dorn tied to delays. But sources close to the investigation say the number of veterans dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long for diagnosis or treatment at this facility could be more than 20.

“It’s very sad, because people died,” said Dr. Stephen Lloyd, a private physician specializing in colonoscopies in Columbia.

The argument advanced by Obama that the “bad news” wasn’t reaching executive levels in the administration is absurd on its face. Blaming Bush magnifies the incompetence inherent in this claim, especially since Obama spent the 2008 campaign blaming Bush for this exact same problem. Obama demanded more money to address the issue, and received it from Congress; no other Cabinet level agency had its budget grow more on a percentage basis than did the VA, and only HHS got a bigger increase on a cash basis.

What did they do with the money? Obama lamented in an oddly passive voice for someone in charge for more than five years that “the structures weren’t in place” to figure this out. He and Shinseki were in charge of this organization since January 2009. Whose responsibility was it to put those structures in place, and to make sure that the problems identified by Obama in 2007 and which generated repeated warnings since the transition got properly addressed?

The truth is that the issue was just a political talking point for Obama, and demanding more cash was all the attention he paid to it. Even Chris Matthews blew up last night over Obama’s purely political focus in the scandal:


And Matthews wasn’t any more impressed with Obama today, either, via Jeff Dunetz at Truth Revolt:


Hall: Chris, did the President do a good job of explaining not accepting the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, and not of Shinseki?

Matthews: No, it was not a clear distinction and I think this has an echo unfortunately for the president of his own behavior. He was not alert of the problem of the rollout on his major piece of legislation the Affordable Care Act. He let it go all of those months until we had the catastrophe. So this lack of alertness— I think people—the one thing I like about the election nights, I love them like most of us in this business do, because of the crackle, somebody wins- somebody loses. People want to see that in the government. They want to see the government to respond to a situation quickly and move, make decisions and be efficient and don’t waste your money, and take care of the people they are supposed to take care of. We all feel for General Shinseki, but what about the guy waiting right now for a doctor— is waiting three or for months who may have lost a limb or infection or who may really need help with something, and that is the concern. It is like the Catholic Church, my church, they wait and worried about the priests and the cardinals the bishops, but they should have been worried about altar boys. That is who they should have been worried about.

Hall: The President was asked about the scapegoating, if that is to be seen as what happened here with Shinseki back to your criticism of the president—

Matthews: That’s a negative term, it’s a negative term but it is appropriate. Someone has to take responsibilities, accountability. These jobs, I go back to they are not honorifics, they are executive positions, where you are responsible if things go wrong. And some people don’t move quick enough, and maybe Sebelius should have resigned, maybe this guy should have offered his resignation a couple of days ago. I think the president acted today, it’s better he reacted today than tomorrow or Monday. But it would have been better two days ago.

Or in 2013, or 2012, or 2010. Blaming Bush for five-plus years of incompetence is nothing more than the same old blame-shifting and lack of accountability in the Obama administration.