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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is under fire amid allegations of massive delays in treating veterans needing medical and mental health care. / Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

Eric Shinseki took charge of the nation's second-largest bureaucracy at the Department of Veterans Affairs five years ago cloaked in the kind of virtue and integrity most politicians would bleed for -- a war hero-risen-to-Army chief with a reputation for speaking truth to power on the eve of a controversial new war in Iraq.

As the 71-year-old VA secretary was sworn in last week before a Senate committee investigating a growing scandal around delays in providing medical care, in some cases causing harm to veterans, he seemed to remind those present of his sterling reputation.

"I've been taking oaths most of my life, Mr, Chairman," said the twice-wounded Vietnam War veteran. "You have my best answers based on what I know, as truthful a presentation as I can make."

Yet the cloak of integrity has been fraying badly in recent weeks.

After summoning Shinseki to the White House Wednesday for a meeting on the crisis, President Obama called allegations that government officials falsified data to hide how long veterans were waiting to see doctors "intolerable" and "disgraceful" and vowed to hold those responsible accountable if the charges prove true.

The beleaguered VA chief took a body blow earlier this month when the nation's largest veterans service group, the American Legion with 2.4 million members, called on Shinseki to step down.

American Legion Cmdr. Daniel Dellinger raised allegations of poor oversight and failed leadership. A number of Republicans in Congress and two Democrats also want the secretary out.

On Friday, minutes after Shinseki testified that there were only "isolated cases" of hospitals covering up delays in care, Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin told the Senate VA Committee that 10 hospitals were under investigation.

By Tuesday, that number had more than doubled to 26, according to Griffin's office.

Even the secretary's most ardent supporters are frustrated.

"He is as secretary a very bad communicator in terms of what the strengths of the VA are and what the weaknesses of the VA are, what the problems are," says Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, who has repeatedly defended Shinseki as the scandal has grown.

Still, Sanders says, the broadening probe by the inspector general -- which includes an assessment of possibly criminal violations -- should be allowed to go forward before conclusions about Shinseki's leadership are reached.

Other established veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans have refrained from condemning Shinseki in public, while urging him behind closed doors to do a better job of getting out in front of the scandal.

Defenders are quick to cite what they see as Shinseki's record of successes at the VA, reducing veteran homelessness, implementing expansion of the G.I. bill to a million veterans, reducing a backlog of compensation cases by half and expanding health care enrollment by a net 1.4 million.

"He very much embodies that idea of a servant leader," says W. Scott Gould, who served as Shinseki's deputy secretary for four years. "Very humble. Very respectful of the rights of all parties. But very persistent in getting through to resolution and getting the problem solved."

"I think everybody had high hopes for Secretary Shinseki," says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American and today one of Shinseki's most vocal critics. "He's gotten more of a benefit of the doubt than any political figure I've ever seen in my life."

Rieckhoff says the reputation that preceded Shinseki into office has ultimately been a liability to the veterans he serves because it has, for many years, taken the edge off holding the secretary to a high standard.

"It's bad for accountability," he says. "And it's bad for the VA because it looks like there's a culture of failure."

The frustration and criticisms call into question what President Obama promised in December 2008 when he announced that Shinseki would lead an agency that treats more than nearly 9 million veterans.

"No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure (veterans) have the support they need," Obama said at the time.

Born in Hawaii of Japanese-Americans parents nearly a year after the attack on Pearly Harbor, Shinseki grew up in a family where he was influenced by uncles who served in the military despite the rampant discrimination that led to interment of 100,000 Japanese Americans.

He graduated from West Point and served as a forward observer in Vietnam. Wounded in a mortar attack, Shinseki suffered even more severe injuries when the medevac helicopter carrying him crashed en route. He would recover and return to combat in 1970, losing part of his right foot to a land mine.

Rising through the ranks, he was in 1999 named chief of staff of the army by President Clinton. Supporters viewed him as all but a martyr four years later when he told Congress that possibly "several hundred thousand" troops would be necessary for a war against Iraq, far more than the Bush Administration anticipated using in the upcoming invasion.

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the testimony as "far off the mark" and Shinseki retired from the Army four months later. But when Bush sent a surge of additional troops into Iraq in 2007 to quell a growing insurgency, many saw that as vindication of Shinseki's testimony four years before.

Sanders cited this pivotal event in an interview this week as an enduring part of the Shinseki legacy. "It took a lot of courage... to tell that to your boss."

But soon after Shinseki,who is married with two adult children, took charge of the VA, allegations began surfacing that stringent standards that were being set for medical care -- to see all patients within 14 days -- were being violated at the local hospital level.

William Schoenhard, then deputy undersecretary for health operations and management, drafted a nine-page memorandum in 2010 listing dozens of ways that hospital clerks and managers could manipulate records when they could not see patients quickly.

"In order to improve scores on assorted access measures, certain facilities have adopted... practices sometimes to referred to as 'gaming strategies,' " Schoenhard wrote.

The Governmental Accountability Office and the inspector general conducted investigations showing that the practice was widespread and deeply ingrained.

Earlier this year, the VA acknowledged that 23 veterans had died over the past four years because of delays in cancer screenings.

The scandal erupted in April with allegations reported by The Arizona Republic and CNN that secret waiting lists had been created at the VA in Phoenix to hide delays in care and that as many as 40 veterans have died while awaiting a doctor.

John Daigh, a VA assistant inspector general, said that so far no deaths at Phoenix have been linked directly with delays in care. But there is evidence, he said, that veterans have been "harmed" because they could not see a doctor quickly enough.

Scores of inspector general investigators have been poured into the case and both Griiffin and Daigh say much more needs to be learned. Griffin said his investigation should conclude by August.

Behind the allegations of hiding and changing records is the reality of whether the VA can handle a growing influx of aging veterans and the more than a million from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many of whom have complex problems.

"As the demand for VA health care continues to escalate, it is imperative that VA address its access-to-care problems," GAO lead investigator Debra Draper testified last week. "Since 2005, the number of patients served by VA has increased nearly 20%, and the number of annual outpatient medical appointments has increased by approximately 45%. In light of this, the failure of VA to address its access-to-care problems, including the accurate tracking and reporting of wait times and specialty care consults, will considerably worsen an already untenable situation."

"Caring for our veterans is not an issue that popped up in recent weeks," President Obama said Wednesday after meeting with Shinseki at the White House. But he added a firm goal for the beleaguered agency: "bringing the VA into the 21st century."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Shinseki's reputation eroding quickly

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