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Twisting Begich’s Response to VA Scandal

Crossroads GPS misuses a quote from Sen. Mark Begich and conflates two separate management problems at the Veterans Administration to insinuate in a TV ad that Begich doesn’t take the current VA scandal seriously.

The conservative group attempts to link Begich – who sits on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee – to news reports that some veterans died while waiting for VA medical appointments. The ad quotes Begich as saying, “If there’s a problem, they need to fix it,” and then asks incredulously, “if there is a problem?” to suggest that Begich doesn’t believe there is one. But three weeks before he made that remark, Begich condemned reports of mismanagement at the VA as a “disgrace” and called for an immediate investigation and a national policy to allow veterans to get care at non-VA health facilities.

The ad also suggests that Begich should have known about the current problems at the VA because “four years ago the VA inspector general failed the Anchorage VA office in 13 of 14 areas.” But that report concerned the processing of disability claims and was unrelated to the scandal. And Begich did press former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to fix the claims backlog at the time.

The Crossroads ad, which began airing in Begich’s home state of Alaska in late May on a $450,000 ad buy, highlights on-screen the headline from a CNN report — “Veterans languish and die on a VA hospital’s secret list” — and claims Begich’s response was to say, “if there’s a problem, they need to fix it.”

Crossroads ad: A national disgrace. Veterans died waiting for care that never came. Sen. Mark Begich sits on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. His response? “If there’s a problem, they need to fix it.”

The leading GOP candidate in the Alaska race, Dan Sullivan, also used that quote in an opinion piece that was published in the Anchorage Daily News on May 20. Sullivan wrote: “Incredibly, Senator Mark Begich, has barely acknowledged that there is a problem. He seems to view himself as a bystander to the crisis facing America’s veterans. ‘If there’s a problem,’ Senator Begich said, ‘they [the Obama Administration] need to fix it.’ ”

The quote comes from a May 15 Wall Street Journal story, which said: “Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat facing re-election this year in conservative-leaning Alaska, said that after the HealthCare.gov issues, the administration should be vigilant to correct any problems. ‘They should have learned from that — if there’s a problem, they need to fix it,’ he said.”

But Begich’s “response” to the VA scandal was much stronger than that. The day after that CNN story, which originally was published April 23, Begich called for an “immediate hearing to investigate” and a national policy to allow veterans to get care at non-VA health facilities. In his April 24 press release, Begich had much stronger words than the May 15 quote in the Wall Street Journal:

Begich, April 24 press release: “Reports of these ‘secret lists’ are disgraceful and have led to the deaths of our former service men and women,” said Begich. “As a government, we should be ashamed of the poor administration of care for our sick veterans who sacrificed – putting their own lives on the line – for our country. I am calling for an immediate hearing to investigate these practices and make sure that no veteran ever has to endure a life-threatening wait like those in Arizona have. Our veteran community and their families deserve justice.”

Begich also wrote letters to Shinseki, who has since resigned, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He highlighted a policy in Alaska of the VA partnering with local care providers and Alaskan tribes to reduce wait times and provide more convenient care in rural areas. In his letter to Shinseki, Begich said: “I urge a similar policy nationwide … I urge you to act swiftly to implement additional [Memorandums of Understanding] with other health care systems so veterans can receive effective health care as soon as possible. The MOU implementation in Alaska serves as a great example of helping veterans and health care practitioners alike, and I believe it would improve the quality of life and care in urban areas that experience a high demand of VA health care.”

Begich told Shinseki he was writing to “express my outrage,” calling the delays in care “absolutely unacceptable.”

A few weeks later, on May 15,  in a hearing held by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Begich pressed Shinseki on whether anyone had been fired for manipulating data. The senator said that “sometimes, you’ve got to have some heads roll in order to get the system to shape up.” The Wall Street Journal story that quoted Begich as saying “if there is a problem” was a report on the Senate hearing and appeared online the same day.

News of the Phoenix VA scandal first broke on April 9, when Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, announced that his staff investigation revealed up to 40 deaths of veterans could be tied to delayed care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, which was keeping two sets of records to hide long waits for health care appointments. An April 10 Arizona Republic story detailed Miller’s announcement and the paper’s own investigation into allegations of falsified records and preventable deaths at the Phoenix VA.

On April 23, CNN followed with its own report, quoting Dr. Sam Foote, who had retired after 24 years with the Phoenix VA, saying the facility kept two lists: an official, and falsified, wait list that was given to officials in Washington; and a secret list that showed the true wait times, which could be months. Foote told CNN: “[T]hey wouldn’t take you off that secret list until you had an appointment time that was less than 14 days so it would give the appearance that they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not.”

The doctor estimated that 1,400 to 1,600 veterans were on the secret list, waiting to see primary care physicians, and he said at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for care. CNN also had obtained internal emails showing top officials knew about the “secret list” practice.

On May 15, Begich questioned Shinseki at the Senate hearing about 3,000 VA employees in 2013 who Shinseki said had been removed from their positions because of poor performance or misconduct regarding scheduling. Shinseki said at the hearing: “Some may be reassignments. Others were departures, some by retirement, and others by in effect being let loose by VA, let go by VA.”

Begich asked repeatedly whether anyone was fired. “I want to know specifically on this issue, have you ever fired anybody on this issue, when you find out that they’re not — they’ve manipulated the records? … As a former mayor, I would fire them. They’d be gone,” he told Shinseki, who responded: “There is a process here, senator. Let me not get out ahead of it.”

Robert Petzel, then-undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told Begich “we can go back and try and resurrect” whether or not anyone had been fired for manipulating data. Begich said, “I think the biggest challenge is if we don’t hold people accountable for actions that they manipulated or they redrafted the records to make it look better, then we’re never going to solve this problem. And sometimes, you’ve got to have some heads roll in order to get the system to shape up.”

Anchorage VA Report

The Crossroads ad goes on to imply Begich should have known of the problem years ago. It says, “If there’s a problem? Four years ago the VA inspector general failed the Anchorage VA office in 13 of 14 areas.” But that inspector general report had nothing to do with wait lists for care or veterans dying while waiting for appointments.

Instead the Anchorage Veterans Administration Regional Office got poor marks for processing disability claims for service-related disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and traumatic brain injury. The Anchorage Daily News reported at the time that some veterans had been underpaid, encountered delays in getting payments or were “initially denied services they might be entitled to.”

It was a nationwide issue, but one VA official said the problems were beyond the norm in Anchorage, where a management position had been vacant for eight months and contributed to the issue.

The same Anchorage Daily News report cited in the Crossroads ad said Begich immediately had asked Shinseki to address the issue and had scheduled a committee field hearing in Anchorage.

Anchorage Daily News, Jan. 28, 2010: Just after the report was released, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki, in which he called the findings “troubling” and asked Shinseki to immediately address them. Begich, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has scheduled a committee field hearing at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 16 at Loussac Library in Anchorage to hear what’s being done.

Three years later, there was still a backlog of disability claims in Alaska, and elsewhere. At a March 2013 Senate committee hearing on the issue, Begich said, “Honestly when I look at the numbers … from my time here, things aren’t getting better.” He and other lawmakers asked the VA for monthly internal performance data. The hearing came after a Center for Investigative Reporting article said, based on VA documents, that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for disability benefits had gone from 11,000 to 245,000 since 2009.

For the Anchorage office, another inspector general report, released in January 2013, found errors in 18 out of 38 disability claims reviewed, and it recommended procedural changes to improve the processing of claims.

At another Alaska hearing on the issue held by Begich in 2013, Petzel, who has since resigned from his position as undersecretary for health at the VA, said the Anchorage office had improved its processing of claims recently. He said new procedures had caused a small increase in the accuracy of claims decisions, from 81 percent in fiscal 2012 to 83 percent in 2013.

But again, that’s about disability claims, not wait times to see a doctor.

Now, Begich is calling for the VA to allow veterans to use non-VA health care facilities, like he had advocated in Alaska. In 2011, he introduced the Hero’s Card Act to set up a pilot program to allow veterans in Alaska to obtain health care services at any non-VA facility. The bill died in committee. But in 2012, the Alaska VA entered into an agreement with 26 tribal health facilities to increase access for veterans in remote areas, and in 2014, the state VA set up partnerships with other medical centers to treat veterans.

— Lori Robertson