I am writing to defend General Shinseki from charges that he should resign as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs because of delays in treating veterans in Phoenix, Fort Collins, and other locations.
While I was at Firebase Barbara in Vietnam, in 1970, a few miles away, the US Special Forces base at Mai Loc was overrun by the North Vietnamese. Then Army Captain Eric Shinseki went to relieve the base. Although I don’t know him at all, I feel a bond with General Shinseki as an Army veteran who cares about the people who served with him. The VA faces an overwhelming task; things have improved under Shinseki although they still have a long way to go.
I have heard no one on the news explain well why the veterans in Phoenix died while waiting for care. Except for veterans wounded or otherwise injured during their service, the VA is a caregiver of last resort. The fact that these people died in Phoenix means that they had no military Tricare, no private healthcare insurance, no Obama Care, no Medicare, no Medicaid, and their local emergency rooms apparently refused to treat them when their condition became urgent. It is an indictment of the whole American healthcare system, as well as an indictment of VA care.
One problem with firing Shinseki is replacing him. Healthcare costs in America have skyrocketed. To replace Shinseki, you would ideally get a senior administrator of a large, private hospital system, but almost every person in one of these positions makes millions of dollars per year. They would have to make a significant financial sacrifice to take the VA job. One example is former Senator Frist; the Frist family in Tennessee is fantastically wealthy because of its hospital chain which was taken over by HCA, in which the Frists remain involved. If you look at other well-known hospital systems, the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic for example, the senior personnel are extremely well paid.
Although all aspects of the VA could be improved, I think the current scandal mainly involves old veterans like myself. For veterans who come home wounded in combat, my understanding is that the VA is doing a better job, and once a person is in the VA system, the VA health data (as opposed to service data) is probably automated better than any private hospital’s. I have looked into somehow getting on the VA’s roles, and frankly have been put off, but I did not make an issue of it because I have private insurance and Medicare. The VA replied to my letters by saying that because I had these other coverages, I did not qualify for VA care. I belong to the American Legion mainly because I hope that if something catastrophic happened to me not covered by insurance, the American Legion would help my wife get some kind of VA care for me. I understand that the VA cannot be the primary healthcare provider to everyone who ever served in the American military. It is more important that the VA take care of wounded veterans rather than old guys with chronic diseases, although admittedly I might change my tune on this someday.
Meanwhile, I think Shinseki is doing a better job than almost anyone who would replace him.