When local Air Force veteran Tal Clayter learned of the growing problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he wasn’t surprised.
“That’s how it is,” he said Wednesday at the Harker Heights American Legion Post 573. “Veterans would like to see it improved. We like to be able to rely on the VA.”
Clayter said he hasn’t followed the news closely, but he knows about recent allegations that revealed up to 40 veterans in Arizona may have died because of delays in care and that a VA hospital in Phoenix kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide the treatment delays.
Similar allegations were reported in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday an unnamed VA employee told the U.S. Office of Special Counsel he was told to manipulate appointment wait lists in Austin and San Antonio.
“They’re cooking the books to make the numbers look better,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a news conference Wednesday. “It’s an endemic problem in the VA system.”
Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said Wednesday he could not “confirm or deny” if a whistleblower from the Texas clinic came forward.
However, he did verify the Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative agency that protects government whistleblowers, currently has 29 open referrals to the VA. “Those matters are in different stages of the investigative process,” Schwellenbach said.
Of those cases, 23 refer directly to “health and safety” within the VA system, he said.
In a typical referral, the Office of Special Counsel will take a complaint from a whistleblower, find out if the complaint “could be true,” and if so, hand over the investigation back to the agency, Schwellenbach said.
In the VA cases, the VA inspector general is investigating the matters with oversight from the Office of Special Counsel.
Cornyn said “something has gone terribly wrong” within the VA as a whole. Along with the national chapter of the American Legion, the senator is calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, based on his “unresponsive leadership.”
“I think (the VA) needs to be looked over from stem to stern,” Cornyn said.
In bureaucracies on the scale of the VA, underlying entities are only as responsive as their leadership, he said.
“That’s why I say it goes all the way to the top. One thing a good leader does is provide good direction and accountability,” Cornyn said. “No matter what Congress does in changing the law, without strong leadership, it will not be successful.”
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, sent a letter to Shinseki on Wednesday, asking for a full investigation, specifically into the two affected Texas clinics.
“All responsible parties must be held accountable for these unconscionable actions,” he wrote. “That’s why I am asking you to respond with a plan of action within 10 days that details direct steps that will be taken to find the parties involved who are responsible for the heinous acts that have put the health and lives of so many veterans at risk.”
Shinseki, a retired general and former 1st Cavalry Division commander, has led the VA for five years. Frank Soares, adjutant of Killeen’s American Legion Post 223, said he can remember working with Shinseki in the Army and doesn’t agree with the way he is being treated right now.
“He was a good soldier and was a good administrator,” Soares said. “I think they are trying to find somebody to beat with a whip. I think they are being unfair to him. He has changed the system enough where people are getting waited on quicker than before.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Director Sallie A. Houser-Hanfelder said the VA officials are reviewing procedures and scheduling practices at VA facilities in the area.
“All staff who schedule appointments also have been instructed to have refresher training to make sure policies are clear and being followed accurately,” according to the statement.
Houser-Hanfelder encourages veterans who feel they are not receiving the proper care to see a supervisor about their concerns.
Clayter said he typically waits about two to three weeks to be seen by the VA hospital in Temple. While it has problems with long waits and delays, he thinks it is a good hospital. “I believe it will improve because now the public knows. The public includes our leaders. The public is outraged.”