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Politics

Jeff Miller, Corrine Brown Continue to Clash on VA Management of Hospitals

May 15, 2014 - 6:00pm

Two prominent Florida congressmen with high ranks on the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee continued to clash this week over the performance of U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Under fire after reports emerged that secret waiting lists were used in a VA hospital in Arizona, Shinseki testified before the U.S. Senate on the matter on Thursday, even as the White House dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to help with internal investigations.

That wasnt enough for U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Miller wrote President Barack Obama this week urging the creation of a bipartisan commission to examine VA medical care access.

Judging by the throngs of veterans, families and whistleblowers who keep courageously stepping forward, VAs delays in care problem are growing in size and scope by the day, Miller said on Tuesday after he sent off the letter. Thats why I am asking for President Obamas personal involvement in helping fix this crisis. For nearly a year, we have been pleading with the Department of Veterans Affairs leaders and the president to take immediate steps to stop the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and hold accountable any and all VA employees who have allowed patients to slip through the cracks.

In response, weve received disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from VA, Miller added. Right now, President Obama is faced with a stark choice: take immediate action to help us end the culture of complacency that is engulfing the Veterans Health Administration and compromising patient safety, or explain to the American people and Americas veterans why we should tolerate the status quo.

But on Thursday, even as he had some kind words for Nabors, Miller continued to turn up the heat on Obama and Shinseki. Labeling Shinsekis testimony in the Senate as an out-of-touch performance, Miller continued to insist an internal review was not the best course of action.

Its no wonder President Obama felt compelled to assign someone from the White House to help clean up the mess at the department, Miller said about Shinsekis testimony. Had the president heeded our calls last year to help address the growing pattern of preventable deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country, perhaps VA would not find itself mired in the scandal it is today. While I appreciate the fact that the president has assigned a crisis manager to help deal with what is indeed a crisis, I have no confidence whatsoever an internal VA review will yield results that are either accurate or useful. VA officials in Washington have known about problems with medical care access for at least six years and have failed to fix them. Thats why the only way we can begin to fix VAs delays in care problem is via an independent bipartisan commission. Anything less is unacceptable.

In the meantime, Democrats on the committee, including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., continued to defend Shinseki.

As a senior member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I strongly support Sec. Shinseki and his leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown insisted on Thursday. No veterans should ever go without the health care they deserve, but it is important to not just focus on anecdotal problems but to look at what the secretary and the VA have accomplished, Brown said. The VA operates 1,700 sites of care, and conducts approximately 85 million appointments each year, which comes to 236,000 health-care appointments each day. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent customer service survey, ranks VA customer satisfaction among veteran patients among the best in the nation and equal to or better than ratings for private-sector hospitals."

Brown, who has defended the embattled secretary in recent days, continued to praise Shinseki, insisting backlogs have dropped and access has expanded during his tenure. The longtime First Coast congresswoman also continued to back an internal review.

Asked about Millers proposal for an internal review, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the media on Thursday the administration was reviewing the proposal.

At this point, we're focused on making sure that procedures are in place that will ensure that our veterans are getting the health care that they deserve, Carney said.

Carney insisted that Obama was very concerned and angry about the allegations that we've seen regarding specifically the Phoenix office and would continue to look into the matter.

As Sec. Shinseki noted, and others have noted, we need to find out the truth -- that's why there are investigations and reviews underway, Carney said. But certainly, should it be the case that the allegations that have been made are true, that would be outrageous.

Carney also claimed Shinseki asked for Nabors help.

Sec. Shinseki, in conversations with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, requested -- or suggested that it would be helpful to have, someone assist him in his efforts, and Chief of Staff McDonough agreed and the president agreed, Carney said. Rob Nabors, as you know, is one of the presidents most trusted advisers. Hes held very senior, vital roles in the administration, in the White House -- deputy chief of staff, director of legislative affairs, deputy budget director. And he also has held in the past, prior to the Obama administration, very senior positions on Capitol Hill. Hes also the son of an Army veteran and brings that perspective to bear as he takes on this temporary task.

While saying it was a temporary task, Carney did not know how long Nabors would be assigned to help the VA review its problems.

I don't have more detail on that, Carney replied after being asked about the matter. It is temporary, but I don't have a timeline for you. And I would refer you to the VA for procedures in terms of moving forward.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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