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VA needs top-down overhaul, area’s DC delegation agrees

– U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman and Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly were not among federal lawmakers calling for the head of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

They will take it, but they want much, much more.

All three said Friday that severe problems of VA’s own making – preventable patient deaths, medical treatment delays, recordkeeping shenanigans and backlogs of benefits claims – cannot be solved without a top-down overhaul of department personnel, operations and methods.

“I think it is the right thing for him to resign. … I don’t think he should be the only one to go,” Stutzman, R-3rd, said in a Capitol Hill interview about Shinseki. “If he is stepping down, there should be a lot of others stepping down.

“I think the problems go deeper than Shinseki,” he said. “We have had numerous conversations about the VA in Fort Wayne, and I have been frustrated not with local administration as much as that middle tier, where it seems like things just get lost.”

He said VA suffers from “communications gaps” and “execution and getting changes made.”

Calling the health and benefits systems “broken,” Coats, R-Ind., said in a statement: “This resignation, by itself, fixes nothing. This issue requires more than a change in management. I fully support continued investigations to make sure we identify and hold responsible those who have falsified records and neglected patient care.”

Donnelly, D-Ind., said in a statement that “this isn’t just about one man – it is about a culture change. We need to hold accountable those who were carrying out or encouraging these practices day to day, and we must ensure that the VA health system provides the responsiveness and quality care our veterans deserve.”

He took VA bureaucrats to task, saying “the current scheduling system is woefully inadequate” for military veterans seeking health care.

Coats sounded like he might support privatizing VA services.

“The culture of the VA must change, and we need to look at solutions outside of government-run facilities,” his statement said.

Asked whether he would back full or partial privatization of VA services, Stutzman replied: “I am open to giving veterans that option. … If they would rather go to Parkview or Lutheran (hospital networks), they should have that ability to do so. And that might be one way to hold the VA accountable, is to force them into competing with the private sector and letting the veterans choose where they are going to get their service.”

Stutzman, Donnelly and Coats tangled with VA officials in Washington when the lawmakers could not get satisfactory answers for why inpatient services had been temporarily suspended in 2012 at the Fort Wayne campus of the VA Northern Health Care System. A new director took over that facility in the midst of the suspension, and most inpatient care was restored in phases.

Stutzman is scheduled to visit the medical center soon. He said his staff has “a good working relationship with the local administration” and that he hears from veterans who receive good care there.

“I really did have confidence in Shinseki,” Stutzman said. “I have met him several times. I had breakfast with him. I was confident in his abilities. He seemed to be genuinely sincere. So it’s really disappointing.”

Donnelly’s statement said Shinseki “served our country honorably, and I thank him for his service. It is time for a fresh pair of eyes on this calamity.”