U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said if he were president he would “probably fire” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki as the scope of an inspector general’s investigation expanded to 42 VA centers across the nation.
A growing number of lawmakers and veterans organizations have called for the ouster of Shinseki in the midst of allegations of a secret wait list for patients at the Phoenix VA Medical Center and perhaps elsewhere within the embattled agency.
The Dayton Daily News reported May 18 that the VA had paid $36.4 million since 2001 for 167 claims in which the words “delay in treatment” appeared as part of the description in a database. The money was paid out voluntarily or as part of a court action.
“There’s a lot of talk about the secretary, whether he should resign or not,” Portman, R-Ohio, said Thursday in Fairborn. “If I were the president I think I would probably fire him because there’s enough information out there that he’s not done his job well. But it’s all through the system.”
At an American Legion Post 526, Portman met with more than 30 veterans and others to hear both the good and the bad about the VA in Dayton. He wants to pass congressional legislation that would in part give VA managers more power to fire poor performers.
“We heard today that some of the problems are in Washington, but some of the problems are at the local level — and that’s a cultural problem,” Portman said. “You’ve got to change the culture of the VA so that people know they are going to be held accountable.”
The senator called a VA inspector general’s report that found 1,700 patients were placed on an unofficial wait list for primary care appointments at the Phoenix VA “pretty disturbing.”
“If that kind of fraud is going on throughout the country it’s even more disturbing,” the senator said.
In a statement, Shinseki has said the delay in treating veterans in Phoenix was “reprehensible” and on May 1 he placed the medical center’s leaders on administrative leave while an investigation continues.
Dayton VA spokesman Ted Froats said he was unaware whether the VA inspector general’s expanded investigation included the Dayton VA. Portman inquired if any VA medical centers in Ohio were targeted, but the list was not released because the agency didn’t want to alert the locations of where or when the investigations might occur, he said.
Sharon Childers, 63, of Huber Heights, said she has had double-bypass surgery scheduled at the Cleveland VA Medical Center canceled four times since December. She said she’s worked with the Dayton VA to make arrangements for the surgery in Cleveland.
No date is set for the surgery, said Childers, a widow whose husband, Vietnam veteran Robert L. Childers, died in 2011.
“I understand if someone needs it more than I do,” she said. “I understand if a vet needs it. I’m a widow. But it’s just been too long.”
Cindy L. Webber of Clayton has been an advocate for Childers, her sister.
“Our lives have been put on hold,” said Webber, 56. “It’s ridiculous.”
She’s found the VA system difficult to understand and hard to get answers.
“We don’t know where to go to ask the questions,” Webber said. “If something happens to her, there’s going to be lawsuits … and it shouldn’t get to that point.”
Ashley Trimble, a Cleveland VA Medical Center spokeswoman, said surgery was canceled once at the patient’s request and a second time when a surgeon had to leave the country because of a death in the family. Surgery was canceled two other times because other patients were more acutely ill.
“We will contact her tomorrow and our intent would be to schedule her within the next month,” Trimble said Thursday.
Froats also said the federal health agency could potentially provide heart surgery at a private health care provider.
Some, like Vietnam veteran Charles M. Hovell, 65, a heart attack survivor with diabetes, said he had no problems with medical care at the Dayton VA. But the Bellbrook man and Army veteran said he had to wait 5 1/2 years to get a VA claim resolved for a medical disability. He eventually got action when he contacted a VA official directly in a national office, he said.
“There’s enough blame to go everywhere,” Hovell told Portman about the VA system. “Just go to work.”
Portman said the average wait time of more than 700 days was unacceptable for an answer on a VA claims appeal filed through a regional benefits office in Cleveland.
He said the agency needs to assign more staff to handle the backlog.
“I think it’s a matter of priority,” he said.