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Sherman Says: Delays in veteran care just another misstep by administration

Growing criticism of how the Department of Veterans Affairs is handling its critical caseload is cause for concern for all Americans.

A top official at the department resigned Friday amid the scandal about excessive wait times and care at veterans’ hospitals. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health in the department, submitted his resignation after he spoke at a Senate hearing about the issue alongside Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

Yet, several months ago, Petzel had made public his intentions to retire this year.

A statement released by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed dissatisfaction for how the controversy was being handled. The group said the VA does not need to find a “scapegoat” in Petzel but rather a plan to restore “a culture of accountability throughout the VA.”

“To be clear, Petzel’s resignation is not the step toward accountability that our members need to see from VA leaders,” the statement continued.

Leadership on the issue is also lacking in the White House, where the commander in chief has yet to speak in public directly on the controversy.

President Barack Obama needs to step forward on this embarrassment and address those who have done so much for America.

Words alone will not right the wrongs reported in the last few weeks, although the president has earlier expressed the importance of caring for veterans.

“We owe our veterans the care they were promised and the benefits that they have earned. We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. It’s a commitment that begins at enlistment, and it must never end. But we know that for too long, we’ve fallen short of meeting that commitment,” he said in 2009, according to the White House website. “Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need. Too many veterans don’t receive the support that they’ve earned. Too many who once wore our nation’s uniform now sleep in our nation’s streets.”

Those words are in painfully sharp contrast to allegations made recently in Arizona. Several national media outlets have reported on delays in veterans’ medical appointments and veterans who died or were seriously injured while waiting for appointments and care.

The VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days. Yet last month, CNN broadcast details of a “secret waiting list” for veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital.

It is alleged that at least 40 American veterans died in Phoenix while waiting for care at the VA there, many of whom were placed on the “secret list.”

Patients from other VA hospitals across the country have stepped forward since that news surfaced, describing schemes by local officials to cover up the delays.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that Obama was “madder than hell” over allegations of inadequate medical care for veterans.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of those things, fix them and ensure that they don’t happen again,” said McDonough.

How’s that for tough talk?

While McDonough voiced confidence in Shinseki’s ability to resolve the matter, he stopped short of offering a full vote of confidence.

“We realize that the administration has done a lot for the veterans, but that isn’t the issue,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said.

“The issue is, we’re having veterans die waiting for the care that they’ve earned. We hold Secretary Shinseki to the highest standards here.

He should be coming forward with the same leadership he showed in the military as a four-star general into the VA. And it just hasn’t happened.”

If this sounds like a broken record from the Obama administration, consider the excuses made following the rollout of online registration under the Affordable Care Act and the deadly disaster at the American embassy in Benghazi, as well as the targeting of conservative groups by IRS investigators.

Instead of having administrators take the heat, it’s time for the president to shoulder some of the responsibility.

(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)


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