Meanwhile, back at the VA…
As I was saying this earlier this morning: “The trick to keeping up with Obama scandals is to avoid letting today’s history-shredding world-in-flames foreign-policy disaster distract you from yesterday’s crisis of administrative incompetence and bureaucratic looting at the VA, or the abuse of power at the IRS before that.” Having checked in on the IRS scandal, let’s see how things are going at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the news is not good. After reminding us that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has appeared in his fabled “Wastebook” for its reluctance to hold oversight hearings (only two in the past four years!), Coburn took a look at their website to see how many hearings they’ve lined up in the wake of a gigantic scandal that brought Americans to their feet in outrage:
Ouch. Well, Senator Coburn took matters into his own hands and produced a hefty report called “Friendly Fire: Death, Delay, & Dismay at the VA.” I’m sure President Obama will read it, instead of relying on TV news for his updates on the story, because not only does it have a catchy title, it begins with the Department of Veterans Affairs motto, which is a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” We all know how much President Obama loves Abraham Lincoln quotes.
“The cover up of waiting lists for doctor’s appointments at the VA is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Coburn’s report, “reflecting a perverse culture within the department where veterans are not always the priority and data and employees are manipulated to maintain an appearance that all is well.” So convincing was that illusion that the New York Times recently reported that every single senior executive at the Department of Veterans Affairs has been given a “fully successful” or better rating every year, for the past four years.
But all was not well, not at all. While top officials were collecting hefty performance bonuses, the Department was riddled with outrages: “Female patients received unnecessary pelvic and breast exams from a sex offender, a noose was left on the desk of a minority employee by a co-worker, and a nurse who murdered a veteran harassed the family of the deceased to get them to admit guilt for the death.”
But wait, there’s more: “Criminal activity at the department is pervasive, including drug dealing, theft, and even murder. A VA police chief even conspired to kidnap, rape and murder women and children.”
One nurse in Pennsylvania was busted for swiping a gold crucifix from around the neck of a dying veteran. A VA employee who killed a co-worker while driving drunk in a government vehicle resigned, but was soon re-hired to a new position at a different office – where he remains to this day, pulling down over $100k per year. And yes, in case you’re trying to fill out your government-scandal bingo card, VA employees have been busted for viewing pornography on government computers… including child pornography.
Coburn’s specialty is sniffing out billions of dollars in waste and abuse. He found $20 billion in “waste and mismanagement that could have been better spent providing health care to veterans,” including millions wasted on frivolities such as artwork for decorating its offices, questionable executive travel, and that old standby of the aristocratic bureaucracy, lavish conferences held at luxury resorts. (Coburn’s staff included pictures of some of their venues, and I must say the water slide at the Orlando World Center Mariott looks like fun!)
In case you’re wondering why the surge in VA funding during the Obama years hasn’t resulted in enough new hospitals and clinics, Coburn provides a helpful example of “how painstaking and expensive the process to build one hospital can be,” with the saga of the regional VA hospital in Aurora, Colorado:
Originally scheduled for opening in February 2012, the latest opening date is now May 2015.864 The original plan was to integrate a veterans’ care facility into the top floors of the University of Colorado in Denver. Initial costs were projected to be between $185 and $200 million, which eventually rose to $328 million. However, hindered by setbacks and disagreements regarding cost savings versus the potential staggering costs involved in building a brand new facility, Congress instead approved construction of a stand-alone facility that would cost an estimated $800 million. As such, costs to construct the Denver facility increased by 144 percent since the project’s origin.
Another facility in North Las Vegas cost a billion dollars to construct, and promptly needed $16 million in improvements. The VA is spending over a million dollars a year to lease a facility it could buy outright for $4 million… and the lease has been running for 20 years. Another facility in Oklahoma was rented for nine years a cost of $5 million, when it could have been purchased outright for $5.2 million.
Coburn, who is a medical doctor himself, blasts the VA for being so reluctant to get veterans off the waiting lists by sending them to outside doctors, even though it had both the authority and funding to do so. His report concludes there is no way for the VA to hire enough in-house doctors to meet the needs of veterans, so coordination with outside resources is necessary. Of course, give ObamaCare a few years to chew away at the supply of doctors in the private sector, and there might not be enough outside resources to fill in the gaps at the VA. Then the whole thing will collapse into a single-payer socialized nightmare, as planned, and there won’t be much difference between the VA system and the rest of American health care, God help us all.
There’s a whole section in “Friendly Fire” about the “culture of fear” facing whistleblowers at the VA, with reprisal techniques ranging from censure and administrative leave to termination of employment. The report was built using information gleaned from both government investigators and the media, where news was still breaking even after “Friendly Fire” went to the printers. Here’s a new story from CNN:
Records of dead veterans were changed or physically altered, some even in recent weeks, to hide how many people died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital, a whistle-blower told CNN in stunning revelations that point to a new coverup in the ongoing VA scandal.
“Deceased” notes on files were removed to make statistics look better, so veterans would not be counted as having died while waiting for care, Pauline DeWenter said.
DeWenter should know. DeWenter is the actual scheduling clerk at the Phoenix VA who said for the better part of a year she was ordered by supervisors to manage and handle the so-called “secret waiting list,” where veterans’ names of those seeking medical care were often placed, sometimes left for months with no care at all.
DeWenter said there have been at least seven times since last October when the deaths of veterans were concealed by physically altering their records. She also talked about requests for treatment from veterans getting stuffed into a desk drawer instead of being entered into the system, corroborating the story told by the original Phoenix whistleblower, Dr. Sam Foote.
And that’s not just happening in Phoenix, as we should all know by now. The Oklahoman reports on a letter sent to President Obama by the U.S. Special Counsel’s office, the day before Senator Coburn’s report was released:
According to the letter, from Carolyn N. Lerner, schedulers at a VA facility in Fort Collins, Colo., “were instructed to alter wait times (for appointments) to make their waiting periods look shorter.”
The special counsel’s office is investigating allegations that two schedulers were reassigned to Wyoming for not complying with instructions to “zero out” wait times, Lerner told Obama.
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously.”
“As I told our workforce, intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation in law, policy, or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable,” Gibson said.
The VA scandal is still developing, and if the latest whistleblower accounts are to be believed, abusive behavior continued after the whole thing blew up into a major national story. “This report shows the problems at the VA are worse than anyone imagined. The scope of the VA’s incompetence – and Congress’ indifferent oversight – is breathtaking and disturbing,” said Senator Coburn. “This investigation found the problems at the VA are far deeper than just scheduling. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of the VA’s misconduct and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice. As is typical with any bureaucracy, the excuse for not being able to meet goals is a lack of resources. But this is not the case at the VA where spending has increased rapidly in recent years.”
Coburn welcomed the renewed attention paid by the White House and Congress, but couldn’t avoid a bit of cynicism about the reason: “While it is good that Congress feels a sense of urgency we are at this point because Congress has ignored or glossed over too many similar warnings in the past. Our sense of urgency should come from the scope of the problem, not our proximity to an election.”
Or the intensity of media interest, which is always an uncertain variable when it comes to stories that make this Administration look bad.