Lengthy delays suffered by veterans to receive their disability benefits were bad enough. Now it's apparent that vets have died waiting for screening and treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The problems have reached the point that the American Legion was right to call Monday for the resignations of three top VA leaders — Secretary Eric Shinseki, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.
"Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable," said Daniel Dellinger, Legion national commander. "But the failure to disclose safety information, or worse, to cover up mistakes, is unforgivable."
It is the first time in more than 30 years that the 2.4 million-member American Legion has called for public officials to step down. Losing the support of one of the nation's most venerable veterans groups could make it difficult for Shinseki to be effective.
A few members of Congress also said Shinseki should step down, but the White House said President Barack Obama still has confidence in him.
Shinseki and other senior leaders have had more than enough time and opportunity to get things right. The agency has a litany of shortcomings serving the growing numbers of veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not only bureaucratic incompetence, but a failure of leadership that the VA has not made more progress.
As The Bee's editorial board has stated, it's a national disgrace how long veterans have waited on their disability claims. One of the worst-performing regional offices is the one in Oakland, which serves veterans in Fresno and throughout the Central Valley.
The VA also has lagged in providing mental health treatment, including therapy for post-traumatic stress. An estimated 22 veterans are taking their lives every day. Suicide prevention is now a priority, but it took too long.
These latest disclosures are the most troubling. The VA acknowledged last month that the deaths of 23 veterans and further health problems of 53 others across the country may be linked to delayed cancer screenings or treatment. Then CNN reported whistleblowers' allegations that 40 veterans died due to treatment delays at a VA hospital in Phoenix — and that there was a secret waiting list to hide the delays.
Top VA officials may not be personally responsible for the entire mess, but the buck stops with them. If accountability means anything in the Obama administration, the president must clean house.
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