President Obama announced that he accepted Shinseki’s resignation “with considerable regret,” after the two met on Friday to review initial findings of an internal audit of scheduling abuses at VA facilities across the country.
The audit found that patient appointment wait times had been misrepresented at least once at over 60 percent of the 216 VA sites surveyed. It also said, with growing demand for services, a 14-day goal for medical appointments instituted under Shinseki was “simply not attainable” for the VA and should be scrapped.
Will Webb, President and co-founder of Still Serving Veterans – and a career U.S. Army Veteran himself – says the recent details surrounding the federal VA debacle only magnifies issues his organization deals with locally on a daily basis.
“Yes,” agrees Webb, “It really indicates why it’s so important to have an advocate organization for our veterans like Still Serving Veterans, and a very supportive community.”
Because, Webb says, the VA is a large bureaucracy that has grown over the decades.
“So that it really has ‘mission impossible’ if you consider the depth and breadth of what they do.”
The VA boasts 9 million clients; 90 million visits a year; 1,700 different points of entry in their medical facilities, their clinics and their vet centers. Webb explains they also have VA loans and the largest cemetery system in the world to contend with – a lot to juggle, to say the least.
“Consequently with that kind of bureaucracy it’s tough for the veteran to get in and get the caring support they have earned,” says Webb.
Still Serving Veterans and the organization’s knowledgeable counselors make it their business to know the system inside out, including its pitfalls. Helping vets cut through red tape is the SSV credo.
Allegations of abuse toward veterans would naturally be disheartening to members of a non-profit organization that makes it their mission to champion the U.S. service member. We asked Webb if personally and professionally, he and his organization are able to use the unfortunate circumstances playing out on a national stage to spur on their mission with renewed fervor.
“That’s a good question,” Webb admits. “It fires us up — because it highlights to us and reminds us the importance of what we do.”
SSV professional counselors know the ropes. They have previously worked within the VA system, transitioning now into a private advocacy organization. SSV is privy to the real world impact they make in local vets’ lives on a regular basis.
“We had a Vietnam veteran come in with a thank you letter and in tears thanking his counselor because he said he wouldn’t have even been able to fill out the paperwork,” Webb said.
Webb explains the counselor was recently able to secure support for the Vietnam veteran client’s wife after he is gone. Webb says the veteran was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.
“We are acutely aware of the overwhelming load that the VA has and the need for a private organization with savvy to be able to help the veteran negotiate the bureaucracy and the paperwork,” Webb reiterates.
We asked Webb in light of the media exposure and national conversation, what broader message veterans’ issues should send to the masses — the non-veteran, for example.
“It’s unfortunate,” Webb starts. “I think the system and the administration has known that there have been problems and backlogs — General Shinseki and his team had been working on those — but this is a decades-old problem and it’s gotten worse as Korean War and Vietnam veterans are now needing aging care.”
Not to mention the perfect storm, as it were for the VA, created as thousands of service members now return from numerous tours in Afghanistan.
“Again, it points to the critical need for alliances and partnerships with private organizations like SSV who can help guide vets through the system,” Webb said.
Private organizations, which perhaps can not only serve as a guide to fellow vets, but as a model to their federal counterparts. As many speculate, General Shinseki’s resignation is just the beginning and the conversation about moving forward has already begun.
In fact, Webb was afforded the opportunity just last week to head to Washington to meet in a small group to brainstorm with then-Deputy Secretary of the Veterans Administration Sloan Gibson. That was just two days before Secretary Shinseki’s resignation and Gibson’s subsequent taking over of the reins.
“I had a chance to sit down with Gibson and some of his senior advisors and work through how they could tailor a sense of urgency and foster a public-private partnership,” Webb explains.
The final nail for Shinseki was dealt last Friday. But many, including Webb contend, repairing the broken Veterans Affairs healthcare system did not end with the resignation of the acting VA Secretary. It began.