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May 14, 2014

The VA needs an enema

When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies tomorrow amid a congressional probe to determine whether an allegedly concealed backlog contributed to the deaths of as many as 40 U.S. military veterans, patients awaiting health care in Phoenix, Louisvillians will be watching. The embattled four-star general faces another scandal here amid a separate investigation of a costly, cramped, congested and controversial East End site he approved for a new medical complex.

Prominent Republicans and the nation’s largest veterans’ group have called for Shinseki’s resignation. “The disturbing reports coming from the Phoenix VA Medical Center are just one of what appears to be a pattern of scandals that have infected the entire system,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger wrote. “It has been more than 20 years since the American Legion has called for the resignation of a public official. It’s not something we do lightly. We do this because of people who have been failed by the system.”

In a column titled “GOP Has It Right On This One — Shinseki Needs to Go,” Rick Ungar, who “writes from the left” for Forbes, notes, “The very people who have stepped up to risk life and limb fighting our wars are now killing themselves, living under bridges, failing to get basic medical care, being placed in bureaucratic hell” as they’re denied benefits they need and deserve.

While the New Jersey Star-Ledger opines that Shinseki’s fate should hinge on a full investigation, Ungar’s manifesto is based on “an unconscionably long list of failures,” including last year’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s report on 16 veterans attempting suicide “while waiting to receive mental health care at the Atlanta VA Medical Center — a number I think we will acknowledge is just the tip of the iceberg.”

A glimpse of something bigger and more sinister is the growing sense among many residents of Crossgate, Northfield and Graymoor-Devondale — the neighborhoods surrounding the “Midlands” site — since November 2011, when the VA selected it to replace the current VAMC on Zorn Avenue (which patients praise for quality, timely care).

According to a C-J investigation, the 36-acre tract at I-264 and Brownsboro Road was purchased in 2004 for $4.96 million by an investment group led by developer Jonathan Blue, whose appraiser valued it at $9.85 million in December 2010 and then at $12.9 million in February 2011. Blue sold it to the VA in the amount of the second appraisal ($12.9 million) in July 2012.

Last February, U.S. representatives John Yarmuth, D-3, and Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, asked the VA’s inspector general to probe the suspicious land deal. “It just doesn’t pass the sniff test,” Yarmuth told cn|2’s Ryan Alessi on April 18. “And, at the very most innocent, they were not transparent in explaining why they had the second appraisal and how it came about and who authorized it.”

Alessi added, “At worst, somebody’s rigging the system to personally profit.”

Yarmuth replied, “I don’t know who would have rigged it — or tried to rig it — so that Jonathan Blue got more money … but again, that’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Alessi noted of the $3 million difference between the first and second appraisals, “That’s a lot of money for an agency that’s not exactly awash in cash.”

“Absolutely,” Yarmuth said. “And this is taxpayer money. I got the initial appropriation for the new VA hospital project, so that’s money that I am, to a certain extent, accountable for — and I want to make sure it is being dispensed perfectly legitimately.”

The VA seems to eschew transparency and accountability. According to the VA Honesty Project, which highlights its unresponsiveness to the press and public, “department officials — including 54 full-time public affairs employees — routinely ignore media inquiries … The department’s apparent disregard for the press has become an object of reporters’ scorn, leading some to openly accuse VA of ‘thumbing their nose at us’ and others to write entire articles focusing on VA’s stonewalling tactics.”

VA Accountability Watch (another web component of Veterans.House.Gov) tracks the VA’s alleged pattern of rewarding failure by lavishing cash bonuses on executives whose mismanagement may include preventable deaths, infectious disease outbreaks and benefit or construction delays.

Trying to hide this national disgrace is like trying to stuff a hospital down a whistleblower’s throat.