Veterans Advocate Says He Fears Loss Of Faith In VA

May 17, 2014

Advocate and former Army Capt. Tom Tarantino says he's worried that allegations over delayed health care will keep veterans away from services.

"Our biggest fear is that there are veterans out there who are not going to seek help because they lose faith and they lose trust in the VA," he tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of All Things Considered.

Accusations of long waits at a Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, which may have resulted in deaths, surfaced in April. Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says complaints of delays aren't new. Anecdotes of long waits go back years, he says.

Tarantino says VA Secretary Eric Shinseki may be "mad as hell," but his concern didn't come across when he spoke to a Senate panel on Thursday.

"He looked unprepared, he did not emote the type of confidence that we need to see from someone who is — for lack of a better term — the chief veteran of the United States," Tarantino says.

A day after the testimony, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel resigned (though his retirement had already been announced in September). Should Shinseki follow suit, as some have called for?

"If these allegations are true, and veterans lost their life waiting for care, the next question shouldn't be: Should the secretary lose his job? It should be: Has there been criminal negligence?" Tarantino says.

Moreover, he wonders whether losing Shinseki would help — or perhaps even worsen — the situation.

Sen. John McCain, in the weekly Republican address on Saturday, said piecemeal responses from the VA would not be adequate, as The Associated Press reports.

"What's needed is a total refocusing of the VA on its core mission of serving veterans — stretching from its top political leadership all the way through to its career civil servants," he said.

Tarantino says he personally has experienced "great VA health care," which he uses regularly. He tells NPR:

"I think my experience is reflective of what a lot of members are experiencing, that getting to the VA is a hassle, dealing with the VA is a hassle, but once you actually get in, their care is quite good.

"So there's a lot of good stuff at the VA, we just have to make sure that the bad is taken care of, it's taken care of swiftly and efficiently, and nobody is in danger because of it."

Part of handling mismanagement is getting whistle-blowers to report it, which isn't easy in cases where personal experience might contradict official reports. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America hosts a website that allows veterans and VA employees to anonymously report fraud.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Tess Vigeland. This past week, Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, testified before the Senate and he got grilled. Whistle blowers from the V.A. hospital in Phoenix, Arizona have alleged that veterans were waiting months for appointments and that administrators may have faked hospital records to keep those egregious wait times secret.

There are further allegations that dozens of veterans may have died waiting for care. Secretary Shinseki, told Congress, he is quote, "mad as hell about all this," but he's also waiting for the results of an official investigation. Tom Tarantino was at last weeks hearing and says, Shinseki isn't mad as hell enough. Tarantino is the chief policy officer with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and he is himself, a former Army captain. I asked him whether the secretary should lose his job over the scandal.

TOM TARANTINO: If these allegations are true and veterans lost their life waiting for care, the next question shouldn't be should the secretary lose his job, it should be has there been criminal negligence? In terms of the Secretary losing his job, the question that we are not quite ready to answer is, is losing the secretary, the current secretary going to help or actually hurt the problem?

VIGELAND: Were you satisfied with his testimony this week before the Senate Committee on veterans affairs? What were you hoping to hear?

TARANTINO: Well, we were hoping that he would come out strongly, emotionally, that he would be very well versed on what is happening and actually show the veterans of this country that people will be held accountable. And we didn't see that. He looked unprepared, he did not emote the type of confidence that we need to see from someone who is, for lack of a better term, the chief veteran of the United States.

Its been a problem with his tenure since he took over. Secretary Shinseki has been largely invisible to the American people and he runs the only government agency that is public facing. He runs a healthcare system of eight million people.

VIGELAND: Your organization, the IAVA has been asking veterans to report fraud mismanagement abuse at the VA, at a website that you set up. What are you expecting to hear there? And what have you already heard from veterans?

TARANTINO: We have heard from our members that there has been long wait times as VA hospitals for years. It's actually been going on for decades. And we have been hearing these anecdotes for a long time but we were never able to prove it because the VA has been reporting that everyone gets seen in two weeks. It's only because of brave men and women, many of which are veterans themselves, who work at the VA, who care about the mission, are coming forward and exposing this mismanagement at the VA hospitals.

And so, we teamed up with the project on government oversight, to give them a safe way to do that, and that's vaoversight.org. And you have a way to safely report so that you're protected and that the information that you report gets vetted and the appropriate action can be taken.

VIGELAND: You know, service members aren't always the first people to, you know, raise their hands and say, I need help. How difficult is it for them to report on this sort of thing?

TARANTINO: It's difficult. And when they see the VA pulling these types of shenanigans, it's even harder. Our biggest fear is that there are veterans out there who are not going to seek help because they lose faith and they lose trust in the VA.

VIGELAND: Tom, do you use VA services yourself?

TARANTINO: I actually do and I get great VA health care. I live within walking distance of the VA hospital and I use it all the time. And this is, you know, I think my experience is reflective of what a lot of members are experiencing, that getting to the VA is a hassle, dealing with the VA is a hassle, but once you actually get in, there care is quite good. So there's a lot of good stuff at the VA. We just have to make sure that the bad is taken care of, it's taken care of swiftly and efficiently and nobody is in danger because of it.

VIGELAND: That's Tom Tarantino. He is the chief policy officer with The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He also served in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Tom, thank you so much.

TARANTINO: Thank you.

VIGELAND: Since I spoke with Tom Tarantino, the undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Petzel resigned. Though we should also note, Petzel already had plans to retire.

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