For several weeks, the scandal over fraudulent waiting lists at Veterans Administration facilities has been gaining steam, but for some reason, the story has failed to resonate with many liberals. While Fox News and CNN have devoted significant chunks of their primetime programming to the story, MSNBC has been conspicuously absent from the story, with the notable exception of Rachel Maddow. This is not a political scandal, but it will become one if liberals sit it out, and veterans will suffer for it.
Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have all devoted roughly the same amount of attention, overall, to the Veterans Administration scandal, but when it comes to primetime programming, the story has been all over Fox News, covered proportionately by CNN, and nearly absent from MSNBC. Aside from The Rachel Maddow Show, which ran a segment on Thursday pegged to V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki's testimony before a Senate committee, not a single MSNBC primetime show even mentioned the story this week. that includes Friday night, when the Obama administration announced the first resignation of the scandal, of V.A. Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel, whose retirement was announced last year.
As anyone who follows Rachel Maddow's program even casually knows, she has a long history of covering veterans' issues, so it's no surprise that she'd be the exception. If there's an objective-media counterpart to Maddow's passion for this issue, it would be that of CNN's Jake Tapper. While Maddow delivered one of her patented televised essays on the subject, catching viewers up on the story and calmly explaining the longstanding nature of the problem, Tapper was unleashing his palpable disgust on White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough:
Is Tapper right to be pissed at Secretary Shinseki? Without a doubt, yes. Notwithstanding the considerable challenges that the V.A. faces from all directions, this problem, as Maddow pointed out, has persisted for years, but the specific practice that is the subject of this story, the creation of fraudulent appointment records, was the subject of a GAO report in December of 2012, and a Congressional hearing over a year ago. At that hearing, Congress was given the same assurances of reviews and accountability that they're hearing now. This is simply inexcusable.
Tapper's question to McDonough, "How many dead veterans," is a heavy made-for-political-ads cudgel, but it's also a necessarily tough question, because given the V.A.'s inaction over the past year and a half, someone needs to be woken up to the urgency of this problem. On Thursday, though, we found out the answer to that question, at least so far: zero. On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin testified that, of the 17 cases they have investigated, they have found that none of the fatalities were the result of the delay in treatment caused by the fraudulent waiting lists. "It's one thing to be on a waiting list," Griffin said, "and it's another thing to conclude that as a result of the waiting list, that's the cause of death."
Assistant Inspector General Dr. John Daigh went on to explain the process underway to investigate these lists, and that while they haven't attributed any deaths to the delays yet, "we have found quality standards were not met," and "we have found some patient harm."
The disturbing reports that kicked off this scandal, as the OIG's office explained, may well turn out not to have been the direct cause of any deaths, but that should not become the benchmark. They're finding patient harm, and if this practice persists, there will be deaths. At last year's hearing, V.A. officials testified that there had already been some deaths due to delays in care. The main point is, this thing needs to be solved right now.
So far, the efficacy of the actions taken by the Obama administration and the V.A. is difficult to determine. Secretary Shinseki has begun face-to-face audits of all V.A. facilities, which are supposed to be completed in three weeks. What needs to happen is that anyone found in those audits to be engaging in these practices, needs to be fired - along with anyone who knew about it. These fraudulent waiting lists are an immediate danger.
What also needs to happen is an expansion of a program that the V.A. has already begun, the use of non-V.A. providers to alleviate the waiting lists. As long as there remains pressure to cut these numbers, people at the bottom, or in the middle, will continue to find ways to game them. When vets makes an appointment, they should be given an appointment card, and if that date gets missed, they should be able to take that card to a private doctor to get an appointment, at the government's expense. Period.
The open question is whether firing Secretary Shinseki is the best way to help veterans at this point. That we are still talking about this a year and a half later is solid ground on which to make such a decision, but just because you can do a thing doesn't necessarily mean that you should. As the White House has pointed out, Secretary Shinseki has made admirable progress on some stubborn problems at the V.A., and it may very well be that he possesses the best skillset to solve this one. Is there someone else who can step in, hit the ground running, and get this done?
The pressure being exerted by journalists like Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow is a necessary ingredient in ensuring that this gets done, but in the absence of responsible, contextualized reporting and commentary, this can easily become a partisan political scandal (an effort already underway), or at best, a hunt for Shinseki's head, neither of which will help veterans, and both of which will delay a solution to this problem.
I won't try to guess at why this story isn't generating the interest it deserves among liberals, unless it's to attack Republicans for voting against funding or starting wars, but there needs to be appropriate pressure from the left, and an effort to keep the coverage focused on helping veterans. This is a simple story with a complicated context, and there are already some who are working hard to sidetrack it. We shouldn't let them.