As calls for his ouster spread, it's become clear that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has lost the confidence of congressional leaders, whose support he needs for the significant reforms required to improve the VA's healthcare system. He should resign in the interests of those veterans, to whom he is undeniably devoted.
Shinseki has been under scrutiny since it was revealed that the VA hospital in Phoenix manipulated records to hide the nearly four-month wait for veterans to get an appointment; some fear that patients may have died while awaiting care. A report from the VA's Office of Inspector General this week said the practice of falsifying wait times was widespread. And a top VA official admitted that the agency had ignored multiple warnings that medical facility officials were gaming the system to make it appear they were meeting the goal of getting veterans appointments within two weeks. Shinseki should have recognized the problem earlier, and he failed as a leader when he established tough performance goals without providing the oversight to ensure the system could actually meet those goals.
FOR THE RECORD
A headline and a shareline on an earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki as Erik.
Yet the VA's troubles are not all Shinseki's fault, nor will his departure, by itself, do much to solve them. The VA has been confronting systemic challenges for decades, and it has struggled mightily in recent years to keep pace with a surge of veterans seeking care. Today, the VA operates 1,700 healthcare sites and serves more than 8 million veterans a year. The regulations are so clunky and complicated that it takes two years to train an employee to process claims. And the agency was slow to move from a paper-based system: It switched to electronic claims processing only last year.
Soldiers returning from a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with Vietnam War-era veterans and even a few from earlier conflicts, have increased the VA's patient load. Then the Obama administration broadened coverage, making it easier for veterans to file claims for post-traumatic stress disorder, illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure and other harder-to-diagnose maladies. Those are important changes that extended services to deserving veterans. But they've introduced even more patients and more complexity into a healthcare system that was not prepared to handle such demands.
Shinseki has served longer than any of his predecessors, and there is understandable frustration that his department remains mired in backlogs after six years of his leadership. If anything, however, the lesson of Shinseki should not be that he failed but rather that the secretary alone can't fix the VA. The same congressional leaders who are now demanding Shinseki's resignation should commit to swift confirmation of a successor, and to cooperating with the next secretary to untangle the long-standing and systemic problems inside the agency.