Upper Valley Veterans’ Reactions Mixed Over VA Chief Resignation
Ernest and Terry Maxwell of White River Junction leave the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2571 in White River Junction after visiting a grand reopening celebration after the completion of renovations Saturday, May 31, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Liz Talbert, of Grantham, N.H., laughs as Ernest Maxwell of White River Junction flexes his muscle for her at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2571 in White River Junction Saturday, May 31, 2014. The post held a grand reopening after the completion of renovations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ronald Welch, quartermaster of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2571 in White River Junction hangs a plaque with the names of life members of the lady's auxiliary in the renovated VFW building Saturday, May 31, 2014. The post was preparing for a grand reopening of the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Charts show the trends in Department of Veterans Affairs budget and patient expenditures; both have increased dramatically yet problems persist at the nation's second largest federal agency.
With VETERANS, McClatchy Washington Bureau by Lindsay Wise Purchase photo reprints »
The recent resignation of the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs following revelations that some VA health clinics have been hiding treatment delays has left lawmakers and others debating the best fix for the country’s largest health care network. Locally, some veterans called VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation a step in the right direction, while others felt the retired Army general had been forced out unfairly, taking the heat for a cover-up he knew nothing about.
“I like Shinseki, being military,” said Wendell McMillan, a Navy veteran who was visiting with friends at Lebanon American Legion Post 22 on Saturday afternoon. But being at “the top of the food chain,” he was forced to take the blame for someone “down below him.”
Calls for Shinseki’s removal from office intensified last week after a federal investigation of the Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans had been kept off an official waiting list and confirmed allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix. In April, CNN reported that at least 40 veterans have died waiting for appointments in that system.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Gary Dunn, an Army veteran who was also at the American Legion yesterday afternoon. “My heart goes out to their families.”
While several VA systems have come under fire recently, local veterans were quick to laud the treatment they have received at the White River Junction VA Medical Center.
Ronald Welch, a Marine Corps veteran and Wilder resident, has been using the medical center “pretty steady” since 1986, he said. “You get well taken care of here.”
In a statement Friday, White River Junction VA Medical Center said it is committed to providing veterans with excellent, timely care, and has a “strong process” for reviewing requests for appointments.
“On average, 90 percent of the patients who request a same-day primary care appointment receive their appointment as desired,” the VA said. “We have mental health providers in our primary care clinic to ensure that any veteran, even if this is the first time they have come to the facility, can see a mental health provider that same day.”
The emergency department offers round-the-clock emergency care, and it is “working hard to ensure that we have timely access in our specialty clinics as well,” the medical center said. “If we cannot provide the service (when) the veteran requires, we will offer the option of care in the community if it is available.”
McMillan holds “high praise” for the White River Junction VA, he said. But when it comes to facilities with backlogs, the Department of Veterans Affairs might try being more generous with its referrals to hospitals outside the system, the White River Junction resident said. “So many people are waiting, and now they are bringing the troops back. I don’t know how they are going to do it.”
A national audit two years ago found that the VA system lacks an effective method for determining whether its staffing levels are appropriate at any given clinic. During a hearing last week, a VA health official said the department is still unsure whether it needs to add or move personnel to address scheduling problems. The VA employs about 280,000 workers.
In a short statement issued Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called Shinseki “an American hero” and said he was saddened by his resignation.
“The unequivocal goal of the VA must be to provide the highest-quality health care possible to all of our veterans in a timely manner,” Sanders said. “The new leadership must transform the culture of the VA, establish accountability and punish those responsible for the reprehensible manipulation of wait times. As chairman of the Senate veterans’ committee I look forward to working with President Obama, the new VA leadership and my Senate colleagues to make that happen.”
Sanders will appear today on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Robert Chambers, a Navy veteran, called Shinseki’s resignation “a positive step.”
“I think a good business manager might be a better head of the VA than a general,” said Chambers, the co-founder and chairman of the board of Project VetCare, said in a telephone interview on Friday. Managing a war “is a very different sort of challenge” than leading a huge hospital complex.
But to be effective, the new leader must have the power to do what he needs to do, such as fire and hire employees, Chambers said. “They want to have the best person to do that job and not be forced to put people into particular places.”
As of 2013, the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees the VA health network, had 150 VA hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics. Of the country’s 22 million military veterans, about 9.3 million are enrolled in the VA health care system, and the number of people using the system each year is expected to grow. In testimony he gave in March, Shinseki said 6.7 million patients will likely use the network in 2015, representing a 17 percent increase from 2009.
Bill Wilson, an Army veteran, also touted the idea of applying business principles to the VA.
“Bring in Mitt Romney, someone who can run a business,” said Wilson, who was visiting with Dunn at the Lebanon American Legion post yesterday. “A bureaucracy can’t run a business.”
Wilson said he would like to see the VA restructured like a commercial hospital, including the element of competition. While employees are getting bonuses, people are dying, he said. “You couldn’t do that in a regular business.”
In White River Junction yesterday morning, last-minute preparations were underway for the grand reopening of VFW Post 2571. The post, its exterior newly painted bright blue, reopened in February after being closed for about eight months for renovations. The project included upgrading the elevator to reach all three floors, refinishing the dance floor, and installing new carpet and tile.
Welch, the post’s quartermaster, was hanging plaques inscribed with lifetime members’ names on the freshly painted basement walls. He’s been reading about the VA scandals as they’ve unfolded. Being the leader, Shinseki “has got to get the flak,” but no one can address problems they don’t know about, he said. “You have to let him know what’s going on.”
Now that the issues have been exposed, Welch predicts there will be improvements at the facilities that are having problems. “There would have been even without his resignation,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press and from The Washington Post was used in this report. Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.