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Topic: VA scandal

Shinseki’s Ouster Solved Obama’s VA Problem, Not the Country’s

In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

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In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

Many in the liberal press have reacted to the problems at the VA by blaming the president’s critics or seeking to deflect attention to the stale debates about the decisions to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the New York Times put it in a particularly sour editorial on Shinseki’s resignation on Saturday, the main priority for liberals now is now to defend the existing VA system from those who believe that reform must be structural rather than superficial. At the heart of this issue is a vast federal bureaucracy in which a parallel health-care system for veterans seems to have embraced all the defects of socialized medicine. The VA is a broken model that may well serve as a model for future adventures in government health care that follow ObamaCare if it is allowed to remain in place without fundamental change.

The danger here was never about Republicans politicizing the VA’s misconduct but rather from an approach to the problem that essentially minimized the structural nature of the problems that stem from a vast government agency that no administration has ever been able to fully hold accountable. In the weeks and months that will follow, we will hear increasingly less about the VA but the debate about it should not be allowed to shrink into one about a few individuals or the abilities of the department’s next leader. The country’s VA problem isn’t fixed and won’t be by a piecemeal approach that is more interested in preserving the system that created the scandal than in changing it.

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Government Health Care: The VA Prequel

The scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals and the indifferent response it has generated from the Obama administration has outraged the public. More than Benghazi, illegal discrimination at the IRS, and spying on the press never did, the mess at the VA is raising questions about President Obama’s detached management style as well as giving the public the impression that his second term is sinking slowly into a morass of lame duck incompetence. But while we hope that once the president and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki manage to muster some genuine anger about the situation and begin the process of unraveling the corruption and mistreatment of veterans, there’s a broader lesson to be learned here.

We are told that despite the problems that have undermined confidence in them, many veterans get good treatment at VA hospitals. Let’s hope that’s true, though the notion that the problems were isolated to one institution in Phoenix were quickly dispelled and it’s apparent that efforts by corrupt and/or incompetent administrators to game the system at the expense of patients were far more widespread than initially thought. But while no one is proposing to scrap the current system, coming as it does just as ObamaCare began to be rolled out by the federal government, the VA scandal is a reminder that long waits—which in this case led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans—are the hallmark of any inefficient federal bureaucracy. If, as liberals hope, the misnamed Affordable Care Act is the thin edge of the coming wedge of government health care, then what we are seeing now is merely a taste of what is to come as a new era of liberalism begins to flower.

As Rich Lowry wrote earlier this week in Politico Magazine, “the VA is an island of socialism in American health care.” It is exactly what many liberals want for everyone else in that it is a single-payer system that purports to provide free care for those in need but, as Lowry notes, they pay for it with long waits that often endanger the lives of the very ill. Nor is it a coincidence that the only avowed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the committee overseeing the VA, seems to be the least outraged member of Congress about this disaster.

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The scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals and the indifferent response it has generated from the Obama administration has outraged the public. More than Benghazi, illegal discrimination at the IRS, and spying on the press never did, the mess at the VA is raising questions about President Obama’s detached management style as well as giving the public the impression that his second term is sinking slowly into a morass of lame duck incompetence. But while we hope that once the president and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki manage to muster some genuine anger about the situation and begin the process of unraveling the corruption and mistreatment of veterans, there’s a broader lesson to be learned here.

We are told that despite the problems that have undermined confidence in them, many veterans get good treatment at VA hospitals. Let’s hope that’s true, though the notion that the problems were isolated to one institution in Phoenix were quickly dispelled and it’s apparent that efforts by corrupt and/or incompetent administrators to game the system at the expense of patients were far more widespread than initially thought. But while no one is proposing to scrap the current system, coming as it does just as ObamaCare began to be rolled out by the federal government, the VA scandal is a reminder that long waits—which in this case led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans—are the hallmark of any inefficient federal bureaucracy. If, as liberals hope, the misnamed Affordable Care Act is the thin edge of the coming wedge of government health care, then what we are seeing now is merely a taste of what is to come as a new era of liberalism begins to flower.

As Rich Lowry wrote earlier this week in Politico Magazine, “the VA is an island of socialism in American health care.” It is exactly what many liberals want for everyone else in that it is a single-payer system that purports to provide free care for those in need but, as Lowry notes, they pay for it with long waits that often endanger the lives of the very ill. Nor is it a coincidence that the only avowed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the committee overseeing the VA, seems to be the least outraged member of Congress about this disaster.

Though it has been plagued by scandal for many years—a point that presidential candidate Barack Obama seized upon but then promptly forgot about for the first five and a half years of his presidency—the VA system is a political sacred cow which both parties have sought half-heartedly to reform but none have dared question the wisdom of creating a parallel health-care system for veterans.

Even if a growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder about how smart the decision to create an empire of government-run hospitals is, the VA system is a classic example of something that is too big to fail. Too many people are already dependent on it and divesting the government of this problem waiting to happen simply isn’t on the table for the foreseeable future.

But if the public doesn’t like what it sees in the VA hospitals, it should think long and hard about what this portends for the future of American health care. Liberals confidently predict that we are heading inevitably toward more government involvement in this sector of the economy. Waving the flag of fairness and the need to ensure that all are covered by health insurance and can count on getting the care they require, there is little doubt that ObamaCare is merely one chapter in a long march toward government health care that could, if Obama’s Democratic successors are able to get their way, lead to the sort of single-payer system that exists in other democracies such as Britain and Canada. Those systems have their virtues but they also have their problems. And the chief of them is a scheme that basically rations care and requires those with serious problems to endure long waits for operations or special procedures.

That’s something that the left says it can live with, but if Americans are angry about 40 veterans being left to die because of an inefficient and corrupt socialist health-care plan created just for them, what does the public think will happen if we move from an already disastrous ObamaCare rollout to something far more ambitious?

The VA isn’t going anywhere, but a scandal that may do more damage to the Obama presidency than he could have imagined is more than just an example of the incompetence of his appointees and his inability to manage them. It is a prequel of the future of American health care if resurgent liberalism gets its way.

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The Record Versus Obama’s VA Outrage

President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

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President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

We know that despite flaunting his supposed concern for veterans since his first presidential campaign in 2008, this commander-in-chief has allowed the agency tasked with their care to be driven into a ditch. We also know that the president seems incapable of holding Cabinet officials or anyone close to him accountable for their incompetence. That Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is, even now, still holding on to his job despite presiding over this mess for years gives the lie to any talk of accountability coming from the president. The fact that the agency attempted to get off the hook by merely firing one of Shinseki’s subordinates was not only proof of how tone deaf the administration is about the importance of this scandal but demonstrated how resistant it is to hold political appointees responsible for their actions.

Even more outrageous was the president’s concern today that no one should use the VA has a “political football.” Using straw men to bolster his rhetorical position is nothing new for this president. But in this instance it is particularly off key since Democrats and Republicans have been lining up this week to express anger about the VA. But the talk of keeping politics out of the discussion isn’t an appeal for bipartisanship so much as it is one focused on avoiding accountability for the man at the top of the government food chain.

Nor is there any indication that Obama or anyone else in this administration is capable of seeing that perhaps the reason for the systemic problems at the VA is the reliance on government health-care institutions burdened by bloated bureaucracies. Given Obama’s almost religious devotion to big government, don’t expect that this president can wrap his brain around the right fix to a problem that may require a complete reform of this system and a switch to a vouchers scheme that would end the spectacle of veterans waiting weeks or months for the health care they need.

For the president to emerge from a meeting about this controversy praising the good services millions get from the VA and speaking of how much Shinseki cares about veterans does nothing to divert the American people from understanding how much Obama has failed as a leader. Nothing said today will enhance the confidence of the public or of veterans that this situation is being handled properly or that the president has the ability to act to stem a crisis in the making. It took him five and a half years to realize that he had to do something more than talk about the need to help veterans. In the meantime, more than 40 died. There’s no telling how many more will suffer and how many other scandals will pop up in the two and a half years he has left in office. But no matter what the total turns out to be, no one should expect anything more than lip service and belated concern from an absentee president.

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When a President Learns Everything on TV

Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sought to partially walk back his statement yesterday in which he said President Obama learned about the growing scandal at the Veterans Administration by watching a report on the topic on CNN. After realizing just how bad that sounded, Carney returned to the daily briefing with the White House press corps today to say that his statement was being misinterpreted. According to Carney, what he really meant to say was that the president had only heard of the “specific allegations” about misconduct at VA hospitals by watching television. But, he insisted, the president was aware of problems at the VA, as proved by statements he had made during his 2008 presidential campaign when he promised to fix the agency.

Which is to say that, yes, Barack Obama had heard of the VA and had some vague intention to improve it as part of an effort to pose as someone who cares about our nation’s veterans. But between his arrival in the Oval Office and his subsequent appointment of retired Army General Eric Shinseki to head the VA in 2009 and the moment when he stumbled into awareness about the scandal during the course of spending some quality time with his remote control, he hadn’t given the topic much, if any, thought.

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Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sought to partially walk back his statement yesterday in which he said President Obama learned about the growing scandal at the Veterans Administration by watching a report on the topic on CNN. After realizing just how bad that sounded, Carney returned to the daily briefing with the White House press corps today to say that his statement was being misinterpreted. According to Carney, what he really meant to say was that the president had only heard of the “specific allegations” about misconduct at VA hospitals by watching television. But, he insisted, the president was aware of problems at the VA, as proved by statements he had made during his 2008 presidential campaign when he promised to fix the agency.

Which is to say that, yes, Barack Obama had heard of the VA and had some vague intention to improve it as part of an effort to pose as someone who cares about our nation’s veterans. But between his arrival in the Oval Office and his subsequent appointment of retired Army General Eric Shinseki to head the VA in 2009 and the moment when he stumbled into awareness about the scandal during the course of spending some quality time with his remote control, he hadn’t given the topic much, if any, thought.

The administration’s problem here is not just that the VA scandal is far more serious than even Carney is currently willing to admit and that any action it is currently taking to address the plague of mismanagement and corruption that may have cost the lives of at least 40 veterans while they awaited treatment is too little and too late. As I noted last week, having an absentee president is bad for both the health of veterans and the nation. The president may have gotten away with treating the IRS scandal as no big deal and questions about Benghazi as merely a Republican witch hunt. But the spectacle of widespread corruption at the heart of a government health-care system that led to the deaths of veterans is not one you can pass off as a product of the fevered imaginations of his opponents. That’s especially true when you consider that Rep. Jeff Miller, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote specifically to the president a year ago to bring to his attention what was already believed to be a widespread problem involving inefficiency and deceptive practices.

The fact that the White House resorted to what has become its standard second-term excuse for government scandal with a line about the president hearing about it on TV or by reading the newspapers raises serious questions about both his leadership and the intelligence of his staff. After all, surely it must have occurred to someone at the White House that using the same excuse about hearing of it in the media wasn’t likely to work after it had been employed with little success to distance him from the IRS and other scandals. Such intellectual laziness speaks to a West Wing that is both collapsing from intellectual fatigue as well as having acquired an almost complete contempt for both the press and public opinion.

The consequences here aren’t limited to the growing credibility gap that this administration continues to build. It’s bad enough that no one—not even his most ardent supporters—really believe that the president is on top of these issues. But what really stings is that Carney and the rest of the inhabitants of the Obama echo chamber have really come to believe that no one cares whether they are telling the truth or not.

Just as important is the reality of a government that is out of the control of its leader. A year ago Miller noted that one of the chief problems at the VA was a lack of accountability. That’s still true of the agency, as the deaths of veterans has provoked a low-key administration response that has left Secretary Shinseki in charge of a problem that grew worse on his watch. But it is also true of President Obama.

While no president can micromanage every Cabinet department, if Obama really did care about veterans, how is it that in the years between his first use of the issue as a campaign tactic and the moment when it exploded in the media he managed never to do a thing about the issue, even when specifically warned about the “allegations” that Carney claims he didn’t know about?

The lack of confidence in government is a natural response to events like the VA scandal, but it is compounded by a presidential response that makes it clear that Obama doesn’t pay much attention to the issues he raised in his own campaigns and that he is slow to act even after learning about such disasters on television. This scandal makes it clear, if it hadn’t already been so, that the Obama administration has run out of steam, ideas, or even a willingness to pretend that it cares about public opinion. It’s going to be a long slog until January 2017.

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