Politics & Policy

Why VA Secretary Eric Shinseki Had to Go


U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki departs after addressing the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans May 30 in Washington

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki departs after addressing the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans May 30 in Washington

The big question in my cubicle this morning was which will last longer: General Eric Shinseki, the embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary, or the Boston Red Sox four-game winning streak? We have an answer: Shinseki has resigned in light of the apparently widespread scandal in the VA health system of falsifying wait times for veterans to receive care.

From a political, and managerial, standpoint, this was a no-brainer. Shinseki had recently testified before a Senate panel that the denial of care at VA hospitals was limited to “a number of isolated cases.” A preliminary report from an inspector general audit found that, in fact, the problems were widespread:

“To date, we have ongoing or scheduled work at 42 VA medical facilities and have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times. When sufficient credible evidence is identified supporting a potential violation of criminal and/or civil law, we have contacted and are coordinating our efforts with the Department of Justice. … Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system and have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA.”

This confirmed that not only was Shinseki unable to prevent the scandal; he wasn’t even aware of it as recently as a few days ago. That doesn’t inspire much confidence that he’s the best choice to oversee the necessary reforms.

The obvious counterpoint here is former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was permitted to stay on even after the debacle of the Obamacare website rollout. The difference between the two cabinet officials’ fates comes down to this: Sebelius’s firing would have increased the chaos surrounding the exchange websites and probably resulted in fewer people signing up for insurance coverage. It would have directly hurt the law. By contrast, Shinseki’s leaving does nothing to worsen the VA scandal. A new secretary who isn’t wrapped up in the problems will have more freedom to correct them.

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Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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