Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is promising “swift and appropriate” punishment for any employees who may have been involved with medical appointment delays and subsequent coverups at VA hospitals in Arizona and Colorado.
But Shinseki urged patience in waiting for investigators to fully uncover and report on the problems.
In an interview with Military Times on Wednesday, Shinseki also spoke about recent criticism of his leadership style and the American Legion’s demand that he and two of his top deputies resign from their jobs.
He acknowledged frustration over the controversies, but said he has no intention of resigning and worries that the recent headlines will discourage veterans from seeking care in the system.
Below is a partial transcript of the interview:
Q. How do you feel the department has responded to the Phoenix allegations?
A. Any time allegations like these come up, we’re going to take a look. We take them seriously. When we heard about these allegations, in congressional testimony, that afternoon I invited the inspector general to go down to Phoenix and get to the bottom of things, do a complete and thorough review and get me a response as soon as possible. So that is underway.
I also ensured he had the ability to do that, and the resources he needs. I have checked several times, and he feels he is resourced to do that, so I await the results.
As this is happening, I just want veterans to know that VA is here to provide care for them. That’s our only mission. We intend to do that well. Care has everything to do with quality, quality of service and quality of benefits. They’ve earned them, and we’re going to deliver them.
I’d just like veterans to understand when they walk into one of our facilities that they’re in a safe facility. And I want employees to understand it’s our responsibility to provide that high-quality care. We have the responsibility to ensure that confidence is high.
Q. Why should veterans have confidence in the system?
A. That’s why it’s important to me to make sure veterans know they have high-quality care and that VA is committed to them. They are the reason we have a mission. Across our system, there are 1,700 points of care. Outpatient clinics, vet centers, even mobile systems that travel to the most remote areas. So it’s a complex and a large system.
Whenever an incident pops up, like in Fort Collins [Colorado] or Phoenix, we go and investigate. We take it seriously. And we tell people what we find. And then we survey the entire system, so if there is any place where concerns are being expressed, we find them and we take corrective action.
In Fort Collins, it’s an internal report that has surfaced this, and I’ve charged [VA Undersecretary for Health Robert] Petzel to look into it, to make sure corrective actions are taken, and to make sure no similar incidents are occurring anyplace else. That’s underway.
Q. But is the department responding fast enough? Is the department moving as quick as it can on these problems?
A. We try to move as quickly as we can in these reviews. It’s not just looking at a single incident. That takes time. It takes longer than I’d like to be able to get those findings and get corrective actions. But sometimes these processes take time. We go back five years, 10 years to do a thorough review.
That takes time. It takes longer than I’d like to be able to get those findings and get corrective actions. But sometimes these processes take time.
When we find anything, we’re in position to take corrective action across the system. In a large health care system like we have — 85 million appointments a year, 25 million consults a year — if we’re going to do the deep dive and find out what the root causes were, we have to wade through that information. Once we have the findings we need, we take corrective actions.
Q. Why should veterans feel confident someone will be held accountable?
A. Our record is pretty clear. As a department, in the last two years, we have removed roughly 3,000 people a year who didn’t meet our standards or couldn’t live by our values. So we do have tools. And we have demonstrated that, even at the executive level, we’re willing to take action.
That’s why I want the independent IG to provide us with findings. If any of the allegations are substantiated, we’re going to take swift and appropriate action. I don’t like the allegations, and I want to find out more.
Q. What was your personal reaction to the Phoenix allegations?
A. We didn’t have any details. This came up in testimony. There apparently is a list with 40 veterans’ names on it. We tried to acquire that, we were never given that list. So we asked the IG to get involved in a formal review. He has those lists, and we’re waiting for those outcomes.
Q. Do you feel like you’ve been a visible enough leader on this?
A. I do engage veterans. I meet with the veterans service organizations monthly. It’s a direct, no-holds-barred discussion. I travel to their conventions, where I speak to the veterans membership. I do travel. I’ve been to all 50 states. When I do, I engage veterans locally. So I get direct feedback from those veterans.
That feedback provides some grist to our discussions.
Q. But is that enough on a national level?
A. That’s part of the reason we’re talking today, and you’ll see me doing more of this.
But I am sensitive to the IG’s independent review in Phoenix, and am careful not to get out ahead of him. He has an important responsibility, and anything I declare or if I suggest there are outcomes is not helpful to him.
Q. Were you surprised by the American Legion’s call for your resignation?
A. I spent five years working very hard to develop a relationship with the veterans service organizations. We have together worked some major projects.
I didn’t know [the Legion announcement] was going to happen. I learned a long time ago these things aren’t personal. It’s a demonstration that I need to work harder here, redouble my efforts, improve communication with all the VSOs, especially with the American Legion.
That’s what I’m focused on, that’s what I’ll go to work on
Q. What about their calls for the resignation of Petzel and Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey?
A. [Petzel and Hickey] are doing what I asked them to. They have expectations they’re going to deliver on those tasks. Hickey has a [disability benefits claims] backlog to end in 2015. She’s knocked a good piece of that off.
Q. How quickly will we see a response after the IG’s report on Phoenix is finished?
A. It’ll be quick. But we ought to wait to see what the IG report says, and what it tells us.
Q. Should you have had a better handle on what was happening in Phoenix, and elsewhere in the VA?
A. It’s tough. It’s a big system, and it’s demanding. But it doesn’t lessen the importance of leadership here. Whenever an allegation like this comes up, we’re going to react. We’re going to thoroughly investigate, get to the bottom of things. And, if substantiated, we’ll take swift and appropriate action.
What I want veterans to know is that VA is here to care for them. VA is a good system — health care wise, safety wise — highly comparable to any other system out there. Our oversight reviews tell us that. I’m very comfortable in the quality of our system.
I also want our employees to understand that serving veterans is our only mission. I expect them to provide the highest quality of care to veterans, as they have been. Veterans themselves, in the feedback I’m provided, over 90 percent are confident and comfortable they are receiving quality care.
That’s want I want to make sure we continue, that veterans have that confidence.