Monday, July 8, 2013

COMMENTARY: Is VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a Hero or a Villain?

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
Eric Shinseki, the alternately compelling and confounding secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has taken some heat in recent months. With the disability claims backlog at VA still at more than 1 million, including appealed claims, people are fed up. 

Newspaper editorial boards call the situation at VA a “national disgrace” and have urged Shinseki to quit. Time magazine said he "lacks the creativity and leadership skills” needed for this position. Amid the pressure, Shinseki allegedly submitted his resignation, only to be convinced by the Obama administration to stay on the job. No federal officials will confirm this, but several of my trusted sources in the veteran community say it happened. 


But is all the criticism of the secretary warranted? Well, yes. And no. By all accounts, Shinseki, a disabled Vietnam veteran with a calm, unflappable demeanor, has worked furiously to fix the many problems he inherited when he took over the department. It's an uphill battle implementing real change at such an entrenched bureaucracy, but he's made slow progress. And he's made some good moves.

Yes, the claims backlog and waiting times for those claims to be processed have tragically grown, but that is largely because so many more post-9/11 troops have come home. But in some areas, including conditions at VA facilities and the overall environment for veterans and their families nationwide, things are demonstrably improving for the first time in recent memory.


However, Shinseki has made some stupefyingly bad decisions. Perhaps the worst one came just weeks ago when he gutted the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness (RAC), an independent board mandated by Congress in 1998. 


Shinseki, who'd previously shown unwavering support for the committee, reversed course for no legitimate reason, firing or removing the committee's chair and half the panel without naming replacements. 


The fear among veterans' advocates is that Shinseki will name discredited people to the RAC, such as people who believe in VA's bogus "stress" theory for Gulf War illness. The RAC as well as the prestigious Institute of Medicine have confirmed that Gulf War illness is real, it is associated with toxic exposures. It is physical, not psychiatric. 


Just when Shinseki was beginning to look like he really cared about veterans, he pulls something this stupid, this egregious. The decision is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of ailing Gulf War veterans who have still not been treated. 


So now you know why I am conflicted about Shinseki. As someone who covered VA for Newsweek during the George W. Bush years, I still contend with ample evidence that things are better now than they were then. Is Shinseki an improvement over his predecessors, Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson and Jim Peake? If you have to ask, you weren't there.


In a cover story in Newsweek in March 2007 I reported that the VA under Nicholson was an overloaded bureaucracy unprepared for the onslaught of troops returning from war and was failing America’s wounded. USA Today reported that same year that the VA’s clinics and hospitals suffered from hundreds of problems, including worn carpet, damaged floor tiles, leaking roofs and cockroach infestations. That is no longer the case.


While at VA, Nicholson reportedly defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for VA healthcare, cut funding for nursing home care, and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefit claims. Shinseki would not defend such a budget measure.


Nicholson's replacement, Peake, wasn't much better than Nicholson. A medical doctor who'd been surgeon general of the Army, Peake's questionable moves at VA included his refusal to sign the regulation granting herbicide benefits for veterans who had Parkinson’s, heart disease and cancer. Last week I wrote here about how these herbicides, including Roundup, the most popular weed killer in the world, are linked to cancer and many other diseases. Lacking wisdom, courage or compassion, Peake refused to allow sick warriors this coverage.


Robert Walsh, a respected attorney who's represented thousands of veterans with claims before the VA, says Shinseki opened up the process to these claims and fast-tracked them early in his tenure. 


"He (Shinseki) forced the VA benefits system to work as it never had before," Walsh says. "Tens of thousands of families received VA disability benefits and in-home health assistance they desperately needed."


A commendable move by Shinseki, and it showed that things were evidently changing for the better at VA. But lame-brained moves such as decimating the RAC sort of makes us forget the good things he has done and just makes you scratch your head.  


In my recent interview for The Daily Beast with Steven Coughlin, a former VA epidemiologist, he told me the VA routinely disseminated false information about Gulf War veterans, withheld research showing a link between nerve gas and Gulf War Illness, rushed studies out the door without taking recommended fixes by an independent board, and failed to offer crucial care to veterans who came forward as suicidal.


Gutting the RAC just two months after Coughlin exposed the VA to me and a few other journalists was perhaps the most poorly timed decision of Shinseki's tenure. 


As noted by Jess Walker on the blog for Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that solely represents veteran disability cases, "The purpose of an independent advisory panel is to provide VA with invaluable input for the research needed for treatments and benefits – information that is not to be disregarded simply because it is less overwhelming than the logistics of providing treatment and compensation for 250,000 ill veterans. Gulf War veterans, like all veterans, deserve better than this."


Indeed they do. Shinseki's move to essentially quash the RAC calls into question his integrity and judgment. I'm still waiting for him to explain just why on earth he would make such a move. We're all still waiting. Nothing less than his legacy at the VA may depend on his answer.


8 comments:

  1. Waiting as all of the 1 in 3 of us Gulf War Veterans have been for 22 years. It is time for the Secretary to speak for himself. We hold our breaths yet again, praying that maybe this time the VA will hear with something other than tin ears, stone cold hearts, empty souls, and questionable ethics. WE have waited for 22 years where is the leadership to stand up for the gulf war veterans who are ill and suffering and tired of waiting for acknowledgement. What we veterans see is BETRAYAL, we support the VA RAC GWIR leadership and esteemed expert members.
    Denise Nichols, MAJ, USAFR(ret), RN(ret), BSN,MSN
    Vice Chair National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition

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  2. Seems to me with all the gulf war registry exams done and plus all the visits to VA health care providers there could be more Data to share not just with veterans, put other doctors, and researchers. Where is the DATA it has been since February that we had the data from pre 911....Did they add in what was requested by the VA RAC GWIR?

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  3. I have very mixed feelings about Shinseki. He has done great work to improve the VA system. However the dismantling of the RAC and replacing the members with VA employees is a total stab in the back. The RAC has been one of the major players, if not THE major player for bringing to the attention the wrong doings by the VA admin side with omitting data from veteran claims & exposing all the failures by the system. I myself see this move absolutely as payback for showing the VA's dirty laundry. With all VA employes now being members of the RAC, they will be nothing more than puppets to a system that has already showed a history of failure.

    Glenn Stewart
    US Army & NG retired
    Gulf War Illness / aka CMI casualty
    Webpage: https://plus.google.com/110321549524619427432/posts
    Facebook support group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/125208941896/

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    1. well said, glenn. Thanks for sharing this.

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  4. Major Nichols (previous comment) is waiting for Secretary Shinseki to explain his actions. I concur, 100%.

    But even more, as a retired Marine Corps officer, I've been waiting 22 long years for the Colonels and Generals who led us during the Persian Gulf War to come forward, whether they themselves are sick or not, to advocate on behalf of the more than 250,000 of their troops who are sick as a result of toxic exposures during the war.

    If these high ranking "leaders" would have stood with us early on, I'm certain that we wouldn't be sitting here two decades later, still talking about the "mysteries" surrounding Gulf War Illness.

    Personally I'm convinced that there are no "mysteries" at all; only the uncomfortable truths that our "leaders" cannot summon the moral courage to reveal to the men and women they once led in combat. Shame on every one of you supposed. "leaders of men". Your deafening silence makes me feel even sicker than my medical conditions do.

    Semper Fidelis ("ALWAYS Faithful")
    David K. Winnett, Jr.
    Captain, USMC (Retired)

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    1. Thanks for sharing this David. On that same note, you might find this story interesting:

      Norman Schwarzkopf’s Lionization Ignores a Dark Gulf War Legacy: Untreated Vets
      By Jamie Reno
      The Daily Beast
      Dec 29, 2012 4:45
      The late general and the Pentagon have never conceded, despite mounting evidence, that chemicals unleashed during the Gulf War did damage to U.S. military personnel, writes Jamie Reno.
      http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/29/norman-schwarzkopf-s-lionization-ignores-a-dark-gulf-war-legacy-untreated-vets.html

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    ReplyDelete