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May 20, 2014
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Editorial: VA's typical response to scandal invites piling on

The VA never gets the benefit of the doubt. Nor should it. It hasn’t earned that kind of trust.

The spreading scandal that originated at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital has familiar elements. First come the allegations, followed by the VA’s wounded denials and hints that the whistle-blowers are just disgruntled ex-employees.

Anger grows as the VA stonewalls. VA leaders say they are concerned, but aren’t quite convincing.

The VA enlists the VA bureaucracy to get to the bottom the mess. With the VA investigating itself, we can look forward to the selective release of information and self-exoneration.

No wonder frustration with the VA reaches a boiling point as soon as the match is lit.

The VA brings this upon themselves by being such an opaque organization. By not being transparent, the VA gets judged by allegations and anecdote.

This time, a retired Phoenix VA doctor, Samuel Foote, alleged that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for an appointment and that the VA concealed the long waits by falsifying records.

The allegations struck a chord in Roseburg, and not just because the Phoenix VA director, Sharon Helman, was once the associate director in Roseburg.

The Roseburg VA says it has not just a good, but a nearly perfect record of promptly getting veterans in to see doctors. But anecdotally, we hear a different story.

It isn’t hard to find Douglas County vets who say they have waited weeks and weeks for an appointment. Somehow, again, the common perception conflicts with the VA’s official response.

The disconnect leads to a credibility problem for the Roseburg VA. Five years after closing the intensive care unit, the Roseburg VA can’t convince veterans it was for their own good. The VA says vets can get better lifesaving care at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg. But a retired Army sergeant who got critically ill after an operation wasn’t sent to Mercy and died en route to a hospital in Springfield.

The default position for the VA is secrecy, even when it makes no sense. A few years ago, Oregon’s congressional delegation requested a study on the future of the Roseburg VA. The VA commissioned the study and then didn’t let the lawmakers see the full report.

Even when the VA is right, it looks wrong. A Roseburg VA social worker was prohibited from seeing patients for 14 months while staying on the payroll. The woman eventually lost her job and state license for an illicit relationship with a patient. A state agency revealed the details. The VA never explained the allegations or why the case dragged on.

Federal lawmakers are impatient to learn whether the VA hides the truth about how long veterans wait to see a doctor. On Capitol Hill last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki faced tough questioning from a Senate committee.

The committee’s chairman, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. “There has been a little bit of a rush to judgment,” he said. The mood, though, was better captured by Arizona Republican John McCain. There is, he said, a “crisis of confidence.”

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The News-Review Updated May 20, 2014 03:48PM Published May 23, 2014 12:13PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.