The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal continues to escalate, with a number of newsworthy developments hitting on Friday afternoon, then reverberating throughout the weekend. As VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his deputy testified on Capitol Hill, another "isolated incident" came to light -- this time in Florida:
Three mental health administrators at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville have been placed on administrative leave after U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials found a "secret" waiting list of more than 200 patients, a local union president said Thursday. The director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, Thomas Wisnieski, however, said what officials found was a paper list of patients who needed appointment callbacks. That list isn't considered proper protocol, Wisnieski said. Wisnieski said the list was not a secret waiting list, but he also said he did not know about it until a VA team discovered it while visiting the hospital Tuesday for a review...News recently surfaced of alleged secret waiting lists and falsified records at VA hospitals around the country, including reports of allegations that some veterans on such a list at the Veterans Affairs Health Care system in Phoenix had died while waiting for appointments. Reports have said the secret waiting lists were meant to hide delays and could have been used so management executives could get bonuses related to shorter wait times.
While Wisnieski splits hairs, Sen. Marco Rubio is demanding answers, and veterans' groups are seeking accountability over this clear pattern of neglect and corruption. Shinseki has said he "takes responsibility" for what's been revealed within the vast bureaucracy he runs, but Jim Geraghty reminds us how empty that phrase has been within the context of the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Robert Petzel -- the VA higher-up who raised eyebrows last week by declining to commit one way or another on whether manipulating wait lists is a fireable offense -- has resigned. Accountability? Not really. He was scheduled to retire in June, and his replacement has already been nominated. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough tried to dress it up as a meaningful "termination" in an interivew with CBS News, in which he described President Obama as "madder than hell" over the controversy (in response to which I'll direct you to the bottom of this post). The Obama administration is clearly hoping to tamp down any political fallout for this scandal, which CNN calls "devastating," and a "huge headache" for the president. National Journal wonders if this outrage may have more legs politically than other controversies that have roiled the administration:
Democrats who believe they have emerged unscathed from the Republican focus on Benghazi and the IRS—which President Obama has described as a "sideshow"—are not quite as confident about the burgeoning scandal at the Veterans Administration. As Congress opens hearings on allegations of secret "waiting lists" and veterans dying because of treatment delays, the political threat is considered very real. "The one that I think hurts the Democrats the most is not Benghazi, is not IRS, is not Obamacare," said veteran Ohio Democratic strategist Jerry Austin. "It is the Veterans Administration. The idea of having wounded warriors dying and all these terrible stories here, that is something that no one can defend." Longtime Republican strategist Rich Galen sees the same thing. "Benghazi and IRS, those are things that have the coastal press rolling their eyes," he said. "But this VA thing is huge. If I were the Republican Conference, I would give up everything else and just throw both feet into the VA."
Abandoning important lines of inquiry on other scandals -- especially as new evidence continues to emerge -- is bad advice. And reflexively rushing to exploit Veterans' deaths for political gain could backfire. That said, Republicans should highlight this national disgrace and see if more Democrats will continue to defend the VA. A recent attempt to do so by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who naturally caucuses with Democrats, didn't go well:
When he suggested that some of the veterans who died waiting for treatment at an Arizona facility may have died from causes unrelated to the delay in their treatment, he was immediately attacked. CNN's Chris Cuomo, in a withering response, told Sanders: "You sound like a lawyer defending the hospital, as opposed to a senator trying to make sure the right thing is done." Thrown on the defensive, Sanders never recovered, rather meekly suggesting, "We know that people die every day. We don't know why they die."
Mary Katharine Ham opines that the White House is in somewhere between stages two and three of their patented scandal slow walk. They've moved on from expressing outrage to declining to comment further on "ongoing investigations" into themselves. Jay Carney has begun to sneer at questions from the press about this issue (reminder: "this issue" is veterans suffering and dying due to fraud and deceit at the VA). We'll see if Team Obama ever takes the next step to becoming openly contemptuous and derisive of these questions -- which would be followed by the "phony" designation, and the inevitable "dude, this is totally old news" dismissal. Don't forget, though: Part of this scandal is that the recent revelations are "old news" at the VA. The GAO raised red flags about wait lists for care in 2012 (virtually no progress has been made in rectifying problems, according to the WSJ), and allegations of fraud were brought to the department's attention on several occasions in 2013. CBS News has noted that at least one major allegation of wait list fraud was investigated and confirmed by the VA last year, yet no action was taken until the news network exposed it this month.