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Politics

Rick Scott Wades into VA Hospital Storm

May 11, 2014 - 6:00pm

With the federal Veterans Affairs department under fire for problems with hospital management across the nation, including a well-publicized case in Phoenix where 40 veterans died waiting for care while the VA hospital altered lists to hide the long waiting time, Florida politicians are weighing in as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is planning audits at all VA facilities.

As national media reports continue to emerge on problems in VA hospitals and Congress turning up the heat, Shinseki is now planing to launch face-to-face audits at VA facilities across the nation. Last week, VA officials told CNN Shinseki was planning to start the audits.In the meantime, the Republican-controlled House is starting to investigate the matter. Last week, a House committee demanded records on the Phoenix VA facility deaths.

Even as the Republicans continue to put pressure on Shinseki, the White House looked to defend the VA secretary. Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, insisted President Barack Obama continues to value Shinsekis leadership.

The president continues to have complete confidence in Secretary Shinseki, Earnest told the media Thursday. Id point out the secretary himself is somebody who has bravely served this country and hes a West Point graduate and somebody who is obviously also a veteran. Secretary Shinseki is hard at work and shares the presidents passion and commitment for making sure that we live up to the commitments that have been made by this country to our veterans. And that is something that is a top priority of the presidents, and he has full confidence in Secretary Shinseki as he takes on the daunting task of making good on so many of those commitments.

I would say -- point out a couple of other things, Earnest continued. The VA did announce in the last couple of days that there were some personnel actions that were taken at the Phoenix VA facility while theres an ongoing investigation into whats actually happened there. Id refer you to the VA for the details of those actions.

I know that theres also been tremendous progress thats been made by the VA in reducing the claims backlog -- that that backlog has fallen tremendously, Earnest concluded. But theres a lot more work to be done. Were not going to be satisfied until that backlog has been eliminated, and weve got quite a bit of work to do before thats happened. But we have turned that tide. Its moving in the right direction. And thats a testament to the efforts of a lot of people across the administration, including Secretary Shinseki.

With leaders from groups like the American Legion calling for Shinsekis resignation and House Republicans waiting on the findings of an inspector generals report, the situation shows signs of becoming a political hot potato. Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the matter on Monday. Scott, who served in the Navy, was involved in hospital management, including leading HCA/Colombia.

While federal Veterans Affairs officials continue to shut out the light of transparency at their facilities across the country, they have today announced the worrisome notion that they will audit themselves, Scott said. This announcement comes after federal Veterans Affairs hospitals here in Florida have shut out our state inspectors from auditing six different federal hospitals on six different occasions. Why has the federal Veterans Affairs department now decided to audit itself after mounting problems have been uncovered all across the country? The brave men and women who fought and served so admirably deserve the benefit of an independent thorough review that will get to the bottom of the death reports here in Florida and around the U.S.

But Shinseki continues to have the support of other Democrats besides the White House. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., continues to defend Shinseki from her perch on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

As a senior member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I strongly support Secretary Shinseki and his leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown said on Friday afternoon. .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.

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, Brown continued. 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. Since its peak in March of 2013, the VA has reduced the benefits claims backlog by nearly 50 percent, on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015. VA has also implemented an automated electronic claims processing system to better serve veterans into the future. In 2013, VA paid out $66 billion in compensation claims to 4.5 million eligible veterans.

Brown also pointed to expanded coverage for veterans impacted by PTSD, Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness under Shinsekis leadership. She also cited operations to reduce the number of homeless veterans and expand the GI Bill in Shinsekis tenure.

The VA provides quality, timely health care to our veterans, Brown said. We have a duty to make sure that all those who have defended this country when called upon ... receive the care they have earned through their service. I support the secretary in his nationwide access review and look forward to hearing his report when it is finished.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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