Friday, April 12, 2013

Seamless transition? Shinseki wasted the last four years

Yesterday the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the budget and took testimony from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, among others.  For coverage, see yesterday's snapshotAva 's "Shinseki tries to present 134% increase as a gift for women,"  Wally's "How the VA and DoD waste your tax dollars (Wally)"  and Kat's "DAV calls for Congress to reject 'chained CPI'."

In the hearing, the Committee Chair made a statement expressing how continued support for Shinseki was conditional.

Chair Jeff Miller: I'm proud of the efforts this Committee has made to protect VA's resources.  But the point of those efforts is to ensure improved benefits and services to America's veterans.  And, right now, I'm not seeing improvement in many key areas.  I'm seeing the opposite.  Mr. Secretary, we need to see results.  We need to see the outcomes the Administration promised with the resources Congress provided.   The excuses must stop.   I have supported you and your leadership up to this point.  I believe the Committee and the Congress has provided you with everything you have asked.  It's time to deliver.  

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a column co-authored by Concerned Veterans for America's Pete Hegseth and US House Rep Duncan Hunter entitled "Time to shake up the dysfunctional VA:"

It is painfully clear that VA leadership is not up to the task. Eric Shinseki is a patriot and an honorable man who has served this country faithfully in and out of uniform. We have the utmost respect for him and his service, but his tenure at the Department of Veterans Affairs has not produced results.
In other spheres, a leader who falters would be swiftly replaced. Can you imagine a battlefield commander failing yet staying in place? We cannot and therefore believe that new leadership at the VA -- from top to bottom, in Washington and across the country -- is necessary.

The day before the hearing, the editorial board for Ohio's Times Reporter observed, "Under withering scrutiny by Congress and others, Shinseki has said that new technology will help the agency to catch up with hundreds of thousands of claims that are taking a year or more to process."  They're referring to Aaron Glantz' reporting for the Center for Investigative Reporting but they might as well be talking about an exchange from yesterday's hearing.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  Another question I have is the integration between DoD and VA on the eletronic health records and the benefits. Should we have a joint meeting between VA and DoD -- and I realize that Senator -- that Defense Secretary Hagel has a lot on his plate with North Korea and the Middle East right now. 

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Yep.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  But this is one of my concerns when we changed was the fact that this would get a backburner again.  And are we going to be sitting here -- and you and I have spoken about this and that was a private conversation and it will remain that way but are we going to be sitting here a year from now or two years or three years because it's not a resources -- putting of money -- to be able to integrate these systems.  I mean, it's really become very frustrating to me to sit here year after year and, unless the voters have a different idea, I plan to be here in 2015 and see if we complete these things we say we're going to do.  Is it there.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Again, Congressman, Secretary Hagel and I have discussed this on at least two and maybe three occassions.  He is, again, putting into place, his system to assure the way ahead for him to make this decision and be the partner that we need here.  Uhm, he is committed to a, uh, integrated electronic health record between the two departments.  We are -- VA has made its decision on what the core  and we're prepared to move forward.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  Somebody has to blink. Obviously, we can't integrate them, so it's going to have to be one system or the other.  And I think what I heard you say was you've decided the VA is going to stay with the system it has.  That means that he's going to have to blink.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Uh, I would say the VA system is government owned, government operated.  We have put VISTA into the  open architecture trade space so that anyone who wants to use it can use it. It's used in other countries.  I believe it is, uh, a powerful system and, uh, I'm just awaiting, uh, a discussion with Secretary Hagel.

The above exchange is about the seamless transition for records from DoD -- when one is a service member -- to VA -- when one is a veteran.  A seamless transition would provide better medical care and faster medical care for the veterans.  It would also significantly reduce costs. 

Which is why Congress has spent years now working on this issue.  They've spent a lot of money on it -- a lot of taxpayer money.  Shinseki doesn't become VA Secretary until January 2009.  So we'll start there. 

It was already established by Congress and previous DoD and VA heads that the reason one record -- an electronic record -- could not follow a service member on through to veteran status was because the systems used by DoD and VA could not communicate.  This was known -- well known -- before Shinseki was sworn in.  It was known that one system would have to be used.

Shinseki is now in his second term as VA Secretary.  He has had four years in this job.

Yet at yesterday's hearing, he made the startling admission that there is still no decision on the system. 

He wants to whine about how, while he's been VA Secretary, the Secretary of Defense has been Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and now Chuck Hagel.

That has nothing to do with anything.

This decision should have been made the first year (2009) of Shinseki's term.  That would be Shinseki and Gates.  Once made, it should have been followed.

This is the first and most important step in a seamless transition -- figuring out which system will be used.

Shinskei is now in year five of his tenure with no system decided on still.

That is unacceptable.  There have been hearings on this, there has been taxpayer money spent on this.  For years now.  And yesterday, Congress and the world learns that no system has been selected. 

It's as though the last 8 years were a complete waste of time.

Clearly Shinseki can't handle the most simple of tasks.  So it's time for US President Barack Obama to meet with his two Cabinet secretaries (Shinseki and Hagel) and tell them which system will be used.  That decision needs to be made immediately because it should have been made years ago.  Transferring to an electronic record cannot be done until it's decided which system will be used.

For four years, Shisneki has assured Congress that progress was being made on this issue.  And yet yesterday it was discovered that the most important step, the first one that needs to be taken, has still not been made. 

The backlog issue is appalling.

But let's not be Shinseki whining about models (which he can't even call models) and acting dazed by the most expected outcomes.

Part of the ease on the backlog is supposed to come as a result of switching to an electronic record.

Allowing one record to follow the person from service member to veteran is supposed to make veterans claims easier and faster.  Less hunting around from documentation.  PTSD claims, for example, are supposed to be much easier to rule on with this electronic record.

The failure to move forward on this seamless transition is creating more backlog. 

Four years ago, Shinseki came in on this ongoing conversation and was immediately tasked with overseeing VA's side of the seamless transition.  Yesterday, Congress and the world learned that he had failed to do anything on this issue for the last four years.

That's incompetence and insubordination.  This needs to be addressed immediately.  Yes, I will repeat that Shinseki needs to go.  I've said so since the Post 9-11 GI Benefits scandal of the fall of 2009.  The VA blamed the veterans and when that got them in trouble, they blamed universities.  Veterans were waiting weeks and then months for their tuition and study checks.  They payment wasn't there.  They were having to plead with landlords over rent checks, they were having to take out loans.  It would last so long that some veterans would have to celebrate Christmas 2009 with their families in early 2010 because the checks that should have been issued in August and early September still hadn't been. 

In the middle of that scandal, Eric Shinseki testified before  House Veterans Affairs Committee.  From that day's snapshot, October 14, 2009, here's what he said:

 I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consultant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment.  'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.'  To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed.  Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take. We based our numbers on the Montgomery GI Bill which is about a 15 minute procedure. The uh chapter thirty-three procedures about an hour on average, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. So right off the bat, we had some issues with assumptions. Uh, we are still receiving certificates of enrollment. This week alone, we received 36,000 certificates of enrollment coming from schools who are working through the process and we put them into the execute of providing those checks -- three checks.

 That's when he should have resigned.  He knew about the problem before it happened.  He was told when he took the position ("It wasn't going to happen").  He sought out "an outside consultant" who backed up that conclusion.  He refused to inform Congress.  He allowed (maybe encouraged) the VA to blame veterans (the original excuse was that they hadn't filled out their paperwork properly).  When there was pushback on that, he allowed (maybe encouraged) the VA to blame universities and community colleges (the second excuse was that it was those campus staffers who weren't doing the job properly).  Until he appeared before Congress on October 14, 2009, he did not take responsibility or admit that it was VA's screw up.

Four years later, we find out that he still hasn't selected an operating system for an electronic record.  Four years later, he wants to tell everyone that he's spoken to Hagel about it -- at yesterday's hearing it was two, maybe three times.  There is no talking.  There is no outside consultant.

He is supposed to take action, he has failed to do so.  Projections on the backlog being reduced in the future are, in part, based upon the belief that a seamless transition will exist for new veterans coming into the system.  If that doesn't happen, the backlog gets even huger.

This needs to be addressed immediately.

Since Shinseki's failed for four years to determine which system would be used, Barack needs to make that determination and they need to move on that immediately. 

The following community sites -- plus NYT's At War,  PRI, Susan's On the Edge,, Adam Kokesh, Chocolate City and Pacifica Evening News -- updated last night and this morning:

The e-mail address for this site is

aaron glantz

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