Less than a week after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid reports of deadly delays for veterans waiting for health care, Sens. John McCain and Bernie Sanders strike an agreement to reform the department.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed on a framework for a bipartisan veterans’ health bill Thursday, less than a week after Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid scandal over the mismanagement of VA facilities in Phoenix, Ariz.
The legislation would allow the construction of 26 new medical facilities, authorize funding to hire more doctors and nurses, and make it easier for veterans to seek private care. McCain said the bill would also improve the access to health care for victims of military sexual assault.
The Senate deal comes as the Obama Administration attempts to deal with accusations that officials in Veterans Affairs facilities manipulated waiting lists to hide long delays veterans were facing before they could get care.
The measure gained accolades from both sides of the aisle, including from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third ranking Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“I am pleased that real accountability measures are included in the legislation,” wrote Rubio in a public statement. “Considering the deep debt of gratitude our nation owes our veterans, I’m optimistic that the Senate will soon join the U.S. House of Representatives and pass these important reforms. As we look forward to voting on this bill, I will be reviewing it closely to ensure it delivers on America’s promises to our veterans.”
The package would allow the Veterans Affairs Secretary greater authority to fire employees who do not uphold the “standards that we expect,” said McCain, but it would also provide the fired employee due process. The employee would have a week to appeal to the merit systems protection board and three weeks for the board to render a final decision.
“Reaching a compromise among people who look at the world very different is not easy,” said Sanders, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman. “But right now we have a crisis on our hands and it is imperative that we deal with that crisis.”
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is just days into what could be months or years of recovery
U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arrived at a German hospital three days ago, which means he’s just finished the minimum 72-hour decompression period of his “Phase III Reintegration.”
What does this mean? It’s part of a three-step process to Bergdahl’s reintegration into American society. For someone who’s been gone for five years—one of the longest-held POWs ever treated by the U.S. Southern Command—that process is bound to be a long one.
Phase I, initial recovery, occurs “at the forward operating location within hours of recovery.” In Bergdahl’s case this was likely on a military base in Afghanistan. It involves “medical triage, psychological support and tactical debriefing for time sensitive information,” according to a fact sheet given to TIME by the U.S. Southern Command.
Phase II is called “decompression” and it happens in a regional hospital — Landstuhl Medical Center, in this case. It lasts a minimum of 72 hours, but it can last longer depending on the medical and psychological needs of the POW. There is no indication of how long Bergdahl will stay in Germany. When he’s ready, he’ll move on to Phase III, which will happen at Brooks Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas.
Bergdahl’s parents had yet to even speak to him by phone as of Tuesday evening, according to Idaho National Guard Spokesman Timothy Marsano, who has acted as the family’s spokesman for years. After appearing alongside President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden Saturday, Bergdahl’s parents have returned home to Hailey, Idaho. When their son is ready, they will meet him in Texas, where they will spend months helping with his recovery as he enters Phase III.
Phase III is the longest part of reintegration. It involves “establish a perception of control of their life,” having “their emotions normalized” and reengaging “in a healthy life style with family, socially and with work.” It also involves gathering “time sensitive” and “strategic intelligence” and “evidence” to “prosecute criminals.”
Southern Command, which deals with all reintegration cases, developed this protocol after the Vietnam War to help with the flood of hundreds of returned POWs. Since 2007, they’ve treated an Army contractor held hostage in Ethiopia for three months, three Pentagon contractors held in Colombia for more than 5 years, an Army civilian held in Iraq for two months and a U.S. service member held in Colombia for over four months.
“So, yes, obviously this will be one of our longer cases,” says Col. Hans Bush, director of public affairs for U.S. Army South.
Bergdahl’s road home is complicated by an Army investigation into whether he defected or should be held on charges of going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) the June, 2009 night he walked away from his unit in Afghanistan. Normally, POWs who successfully finish Phase 3 return to service. Given the circumstances, though, Bergdahl could be returning to a court martial and potential jail time.
All of which is to say, Bergdahl almost surely won’t make it home for the June 28 “Bowe Is Home” celebration being planned in Haley to mark his release. The celebration was originally planned as a “Bring Bowe Back” event. So, while many questions remain, his family and friends can celebrate that he is, at least partway, back.
Robert Bergdahl's beard looked eerily reminiscent of the beards grown by his son's captors, and that was the point
The sight of Bowe Bergdahl’s father standing by President Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden Saturday might have come as a shock to viewers unfamiliar with his long bushy beard, reminiscent of the facial hair often grown by devotees of Islam, including his sons’ captors. His rudimentary knowledge of Pashto and Urdu, prevailing languages in Taliban strongholds, compounded the confusion.
But as Robert Bergdahl explained to TIME in May 2012, he grew the beard out of a desire to better understand the world from which his son could not escape.
Robert Bergdahl said he began growing the beard as soon as he received news of his son’s capture. He was on his usual UPS delivery route on July 1, 2009, when management radioed him back to headquarters. Two army officers delivered the devastating news, and according to friends, he resolved in that moment to do whatever he could to facilitate his son’s release. That included scouring websites and chat rooms for rumors about his son’s captors, teaching himself Pashto and Urdu and growing a long, eye-catching beard.
A devout Presbyterian, Bergdahl was aware of the impression he made on local congregants. His former pastor told the Washington Post that Bergdahl occasionally explained to friends that he had not developed any sympathies for the Taliban, he only wanted to understand their worldview.
Nonetheless, those attempts to understand the Taliban have occasionally shaded into acts and gestures that strike some critics as a little too close for comfort. Just recently, reports surfaced of a tweet deleted from Bob Bergdahl’s Twitter account that directly addressed a Taliban spokesman. “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners,” it read. “God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.”
Swapping Shinseki for his deputy won’t get to the root of the agency’s problems
President Barack Obama lanced the infected boil that has become the Department of Veterans Affairs Friday by accepting the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. While that action removes the public face of the expanding scandal, it triggers a series of new complications that means the VA’s woes are far from over.
True, Shinseki’s resignation excises the political problems associated with him sticking around. But it does nothing to ameliorate the deep and persistent rot inside the scheduling schemes that led to lengthy waiting lists that may have contributed to ailing veterans’ deaths. “Ultimately, a change in leadership does not address the root of the VA health care system’s problems of access and appropriate funding levels,” said Joseph Johnston, the national commander of Disabled American Veterans, on behalf of his group’s 1.2 million members.
But Obama made clear—five times as he announced Shinseki’s departure—that Shinseki had become a “distraction” that needed to be jettisoned. This focus on “distraction” puts style over substance, and the President said as much. “The distractions that Ric refers to in part are political,” he conceded. Ending such distractions are important in an election year where members of Obama’s own party were growing insistent that it was time for Shinseki to leave. “We’ve also got to deal with Congress and you guys,” Obama told reporters. “Ric’s judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself. And so, you know, my assessment was, unfortunately, that he was right.
It will be vital for Shinseki’s deputy, Sloan Gibson, and whoever succeeds him (assuming Gibson is not tapped for the top spot), to convince the public that he is furious over what has happened at the VA. Shinseki, according to associates, was furious, but seemed incapable of showing it. That’s a big liability in today’s world, where sound bites masquerade as policy.
In a nutshell, Shinseki’s resignation offer—and Obama’s acceptance—took the wind out of the sails of a growing bipartisan chorus of lawmakers calling for Shinseki’s ouster. But the vacuum his departure creates does nothing about the agency’s deep and abiding problems:
The VA will be politically rudderless until a new secretary is confirmed, even as Gibson assumes control after having been in the No. 2 slot for only three months. The West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer headed the United Service Organizations—the USO of Bob Hope renown—that provides troops with war-zone concerts and airport lounges. “Everything we do at VA is built on a foundation of trust,” Gibson told Congress last month. His first task will be to try to glue that shattered trust back together.
Obama made clear he is seeking a permanent Shinseki replacement. It’s likely to take months before such a candidate is found and confirmed—and then additional time for Shinseki’s successor to get up to speed. “President Obama must move now to appoint an energetic secretary who is unafraid to make bold changes and work quickly and aggressively to change the VA system,” said Paul Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
A new boss might not change much. “Those who surrounded Shinseki shielded him from crucial facts and hid bad news reports, in the process convincing him that some of the department’s most serious, well documented and systemic issues were merely isolated incidents to be ignored,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Eric Shinseki trusted the VA bureaucracy, and the VA bureaucracy let him down.” The VA’s 300,000 employees and complicated rules combine to make such chicanery possible.
Candidates willing to subject themselves to the confirmation process—especially to take command of a troubled agency under intense public and congressional scrutiny—are likely to be few. The fact that the tenure in the job would likely be only about two years also decreases the attraction of volunteering for the slot.
The VA has three major responsibilities: taking care of veterans’ health, providing benefits if they are disabled, and tending to the nation’s 131 veterans’ cemeteries. With the notable exception of wait times, it gets good marks on health care. Benefit claims have been plagued by backlogs, which are slowly shrinking. All this means that any VA secretary has a lot to tend to, and that the wait-list issue is only a small part of the job.
Shinseki appeared to be ready to go down fighting in a speech Friday morning to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a group advocating on an issue on which the VA has made major strides. He said he would be firing the leaders of the Phoenix VA, where delayed appointment may have contributed to as many as 40 deaths. (“I’m glad Shinseki torched Phoenix officials before he left,” former VA employee Alex Horton tweeted. “The amount of deadwood at VA could light a perpetual bonfire.”)
In his early Friday morning speech, Shinseki betrayed no intention of submitting his resignation to the President about an hour later.
“Since 2009, VA has proven that it can fix problems, even big ones,” he said, referring to the year he became head of the agency. As for the waiting-list mess? “This situation,” he insisted as he wrapped up his talk, “can be fixed.”
But after 38 years in uniform—and five at the VA’s helm—it just won’t be Shinseki leading that charge.
Eric Shinseki is stepping down under pressure from both parties+ READ ARTICLE
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned following a weeks-long scandal at the agency, President Barack Obama announced Friday.
“A few minutes ago Secretary Shinseki offered his own resignation,” Obama said in a hastily called news conference at the White House after a meeting with Shinseki. “And with considerable regret, I accepted.”
Just moments earlier Obama had met with Shinseki and former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who has been detailed to the VA. They presented the President with their preliminary review of allegations of misconduct and mismanagement. Shinseki and the Obama Administration have been under fire amid revelations that officials manipulated waiting lists to hide the long delay veterans were facing before they could get care. Shortly before meeting with Obama, Shinseki began the process of firing officials at health care facilities in Phoenix that have come under the closest scrutiny.
“What they found that the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country,” Obama said of the preliminary review.
Shinseki was under increasing pressure from elected officials in both parties to resign. Obama said he decided to accept Shinseki’s resignation because of “Rick’s judgment.”
“He believed he would be a distraction from the task at hand,” Obama said, lauding many of Shinseki’s efforts at the VA, while praising his career of military service. But Obama acknowledged that the distraction, at least in part, was political.
Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, will be the acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement to Shinseki. Obama said he was still looking for a replacement.
“I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances, but I also have confidence in Sloan,” Obama said.
“This is my administration,” Obama said when asked if he bears responsibility for what happened, while also noting that problems at the VA predate his time in office. “I always take responsibility for whatever happens.”
Republicans, who have been using the scandal to run ads against Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, sought to keep the focus on Obama.
“Personnel changes aren’t an answer to the problem for our veterans,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus wrote on Twitter. “It’s past time for Obama to step up & fix this mess.”
Eric Shinseki’s long and troubled tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end. He left, apologizing for the mess he allowed to fester. This is a sad moment for an honorable man, who could not make the transition from military to civilian leadership. The question now is, how bold will the President be when it comes to replacing Shinseki? (Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who graduated from West Point in 1975, will be acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement.)
A few years ago, I wrote a TIME cover story about the Iraq-Afghanistan generation of veterans. It was a different sort of story, far more concerned with their civilian leadership potential than with their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. I wrote the story because I had embedded with the troops downrange and watched them apply the principles of “counterinsurgency” warfare in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan. Their job was, in effect, to govern the towns where they were deployed. They had public works funds at their disposal. They crowd-sourced the towns–for the first time in history, most likely–asking the people what sort of services they wanted. Then their leaders had to sell the people’s needs to the local Shuras, which often wanted something else (something that would line their own pockets). I watched Army Captains negotiate and contend with stubborn bureaucracies under fire.
One day in the town of Senjaray, just outside of Kandahar, I watched Captain Jeremiah Ellis negotiate with a local for the use of his house–and I realized: if he can do that here, he can run for mayor back home. Or be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
This generation of military veterans have been trained in the political skills that Eric Shinseki’s generation forgot after Vietnam. They have been trained in how to unlock stuck bureaucracies, how to talk to average folks, how to make moral decisions based on incomplete information under fire. I’ve spent the past few years writing a book about them and I know several who would be brilliant as VA Secretary–indeed, who have experienced and thought through the problems of the system. I’m not going to name names; there are plenty others I don’t know, who might be every bit as good. But the President should take a risk, inject some energy into his flagging Administration, and appoint one of them.
He probably won’t. He has become far more cautious about his appointees: they tend to be people he knows and trusts. But Robert Gates’ recent memoir demonstrates how invigorating an outsider can be in the claustrophobia of the White House. The President and First Lady care deeply about this generation of veterans; I know this for a fact. Now it’s time for Obama to demonstrate his faith in them by appointing an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Friday he's removing top officials at a VA hospital at the center of a weeks-long controversy that could cost him his job, just hours before he's set to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to brief him on an internal VA report+ READ ARTICLE
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a veterans group Friday that he’s removing the senior leadership of a Phoenix medical facility at the center of a weeks-long scandal at his agency.
With his job hanging in the balance, Shinseki made the announcement barely an hour before he is set to visit the White House to brief President Barack Obama on the preliminary results of his review into wait-times at the Phoenix hospital as well as a broader audit of the entire VA health system.
In an interview with ABC hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan which aired Friday, Obama said he plans on having a “serious conversation” with Shinseki about whether the VA chief can remain in his post. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Thursday tied Shinseki’s future to the results of the reviews into the agencies.
The agency’s inspector general released a preliminary report into the Phoenix facility on Wednesday finding that 1,700 veterans were improperly left off the wait list to get medical care, possibly in connection with trying to doctor wait times. The VA’s IG is also reviewing 41 other VA facilities for similar activities. Shinseki told the homeless veterans organization Friday that he will announce the results of the VA-wide audit in the coming days while apologizing for the debacle surrounding his agency.
“Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki told the group. “I cannot explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so I will not defend it, because it is indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”
Shinseki also called on Congress to pass a version of a bill granting him additional authorities to remove underperforming executives from the VA. He added that no senior executive of the Veterans Health Administration will receive a performance bonus this year, and announced that he is ending the process of including VA wait times in the calculation of executive bonuses.
More than 100 members of Congress, including more than two dozen vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, have called for Shinseki’s firing. On Thursday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel added his name to the list of Democrats calling on Obama to replace Shinseki.
VA woes are part of a troubling pattern
No one would argue that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were inexpensive. They’ve cost close to $2 trillion to date, and some projections put their estimated total cost at double that, once all the veterans of those campaigns have been buried.
But there is a pattern that links these wars to the current scandal enveloping the Department of Veterans Affairs and its embattled secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki.
“The past few weeks have been challenging,” Shinseki said Friday morning in a talk to a veterans group, where he was greeted with a pair of standing ovations. He is slated to visit the White House later Friday to brief President Obama on the unfolding scandal. The White House has grown noticeably cooler to Shinseki as the agency’s problems have expanded in recent weeks.
The Pentagon, writ large, has long been plagued by what insiders call a “plans-reality mismatch,” where funding for weapons on the drawing boards always falls short on the assembly line. That’s because the designers are too optimistic about the ultimate cost of their blueprints, and too often count on future budgets that shrink, or have been allocated to more pressing needs, once the future arrives.
Why should waging wars being any different than buying the weapons for them?
The White House, colluding with the U.S. military, low-balled the number of troops needed to do the job in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s why each spun out of control, requiring troop “surges” in both theaters to turn bad situations around sufficiently to declare some kind of un-defeat.
The repeated deployments of soldiers to both wars led to spikes in traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn led to jumps in depression, anxiety, drug use, divorce, suicides and other problems. They would have been reduced if the same troops didn’t have to be recycled in and out of combat, but that would have required an even bigger Army. That was deemed politically untenable. As a result, mental health woes skyrocketed.
When that happened, the Army found it didn’t have sufficient mental health experts to deal with the brain-bruised troops coming home.
Now that many of those troops have hung up their uniforms and are counting on the VA for health care, the VA—surprise—has a shortage of doctors to tend to their needs. The lack of insufficient primary-care physicians—the VA says it has only 93% of the doctors it needs—is a key reason for the “gaming” of the VA’s waiting lists.
A random sample of 266 veterans seeking help at the Phoenix VA showed they “waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment with approximately 84 percent waiting more than 14 days,” the agency’s inspector general said in a report released Wednesday. Much of the gaming occurred because of “delays between the veteran’s requested appointment date and the date the appointment was created” by VA appointment schedulers.
The problems, like the proverbial pig in a python, have moved from the battlefield, to Army hospitals, to VA medical centers.
President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their commanders sought to wage war on the cheap. Congress, torn between appearing weak and giving the commander in chief a blank check, basically closed its eyes and crossed its fingers.
The only ones really paying for this sleight-of-scam are the troops, and their families. One of those, of course, is Shinseki. He incurred Rumsfeld’s wrath on the eve of the Iraq war when, as Army chief of staff, he told Congress that he believed “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed in post-invasion Iraq.
The Veterans Affairs Secretary is watching elected officials on both sides of the aisle call for his departure
Updated 8:52 a.m. Friday, May 30
It didn’t take long after a damning report Wednesday for insiders to engage in a time-honored tradition of Washington politics on Thursday: abandoning a sinking ship.
Amid a high-profile scandal over patient wait times at health care facilities, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki looks to be losing the battle to keep his job. Last week, President Barack Obama offered up a halfhearted defense of his Cabinet official as dozens of Republicans called for his head. A week later, a White House official said Shinseki’s position is now far more precarious. This week’s inspector general report opened the floodgates for vulnerable Democrats looking to publicly break with an unpopular President in the doldrums of the second term. Now at least 10 Senate Democrats and 20 House Democrats, along with a host of candidates across the country, are calling for Shinseki to go, numbers certain to grow in the coming days and weeks.
“Look, I have tremendous respect for the general, for his service to his country, to his four stars. But if it’s going to take his resignation to turn over a new leaf at the VA … then, yes, then he should resign,” Representative Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said Thursday on CNN.
“The inspector general’s preliminary report makes it clear that the systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed. Secretary Shinseki must step down,” Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado said on Wednesday. “We need new leadership who will demand accountability to fix these problems and ensure the VA is providing Coloradans the services they’ve earned.”
The Republican National Committee has already launched robocalls against Democrats hitting on the VA scandal, while GOP congressional campaign committees pile on vulnerable lawmakers. It was a sign of just how worried Democrats are about the political blowback in an election year that Israel added his name to the list of lawmakers calling on Shinseki to be replaced.
Shinseki defended himself in a USA Today op-ed Thursday, writing that “we are doing all we can to accelerate access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside.”
Obama is set to meet with Shinseki Friday morning, according to the President’s public schedule.
Just how long Shinseki stays now depends on how long congressional discipline holds and how great the White House’s appetite for punishment is. Obama has long been wary of parting with senior officials, even — and in some ways especially — when they become political lightning rods. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was kept around after the rollout of the troubled HealthCare.gov website, only announcing her resignation earlier this year at the end of a six-month enrollment period. Often, it’s in an Administration’s interest to leave the vulnerable official in place to absorb the brunt of criticism until the full scale of the problem is known, at which point a successor can be brought in to turn the page.
The report Wednesday found that 1,700 veterans were found to be waiting for an appointment to the VA’s Phoenix Health Care System without their information being included in an established electronic waitlist. The inspector general said more work would be needed to determine the motivation of VA employees involved, as well as whether any veterans died as a result of delays.
Wednesday’s report was only preliminary — and from a single health system. The inspector general is probing 41 more facilities, while a senior Obama aide has been dispatched to the VA to launch an even broader review of how the agency treats the nation’s retired service members.
“If he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve,” Obama told reporters last week.
On Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough briefed Obama on the report. “The President found the findings extremely troubling,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
By Thursday, Carney was unwilling to say whether Obama still has confidence in Shinseki’s ability to lead the department, suggesting Shinseki’s fate would be determined after his forthcoming review.
“I think that the President identified last week that he expected a preliminary report from Secretary Shinseki’s internal audit very soon, and when he receives that he’ll be able to evaluate those findings along with what we’ve seen from the interim report from the inspector general, and then assess where we are at that time,” Carney said.
Lawmakers on both sides and the White House acknowledge that firing Shinseki would not solve the longstanding problems at the VA by itself. But that simple fact won’t save him, either.