Media’s Ongoing Attempts to Downplay VA Scandal

April 27, 2015

Submitted by:  Veronica Coffin

By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media

While some in the media have demonstrated they are willing to challenge the narrative emerging from the Obama administration that downplays ongoing abuses by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), others on the far left such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have cast the administration’s chronic disservice to ailing veterans as a vast right-wing targeting conspiracy. VA Secretary Bob McDonald recently aided Maddow’s agenda by claiming during his appearance on her show that the VA was becoming “transparent” and desires “sunshine.”

“It’s hunting season at the VA,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on April 24, announcing a special medical advisory group to fix the VA’s problems. “Nobody wants to talk about the good things. We’re the largest medical system in the country, so when something goes wrong, it becomes news.”

More than a few “somethings” are going wrong at the VA if the ongoing scandals in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and Tomah, Wisconsin are any indication. Yet, as I noted in a previous column, when President Obama recently traveled to Phoenix, Arizona he asserted that “there were deficits with the way the VA is being run” but then called this a “case of bad apples and systems run awry.”

Secretary McDonald has presented similar talking points to the media, and some, such as Maddow, seem to be buying this narrative.

In reality, the VA scandal represents an insidious form of government corruption and mismanagement which will not cease until those responsible are held accountable. But accountability is the one thing lacking in Obama’s Washington largely due to a complicit media. They fail to hold President Obama accountable for government corruption and malfeasance by blaming low-level civil servants or ignoring ongoing scandals entirely.

The New York Times deserves credit for a recent story outlining the lack of accountability in the continuing VA crisis. However, it relegated this breaking and relevant news to page A16.

Secretary McDonald, who replaced disgraced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, told NBC’s Meet the Press in February that “the department had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were,” reports Dave Phillips for the Times. Then the VA clarified that “only 14 people had been removed from their jobs, while about 60 others had received lesser punishments,” he writes.

“Now, new internal documents show that the real number of people removed from their jobs is much smaller still: at most, three,” writes Phillips. Sharon Helman, “the only person fired” was “removed not for her role in the manipulation of waiting lists but for receiving ‘inappropriate gifts,’” continues Phillips.

In the meantime, VA employees feel empowered to retaliate against whistleblowers within the VA, likely because of these weak accountability measures.

“Once you talk to the media, you are on your own…The VA does not support you, and you are not representing the organization,” declared a Denver, Colorado VA Medical Center Director, as I pointed out in March. She continued, “The only thing you are representing is yourself, and then, once you are in hot water, nobody will help you.”

CNN also reported in March that a Los Angeles, California VA representative, Dr. Sky MacDougall, actually lied to Congress about wait times at the Greater Los Angeles Medical Center, and that Congress was investigating this incident based on their CNN report.

VA crises are spreading throughout the country like a wildfire. On March 30 Congressional members traveled to Tomah to hold a joint field hearing to discuss a death resulting from the over-medication of one patient, the over-prescription of drugs to other patients, and the neglect of an older veteran who came in and suffered from a stroke while waiting for care at the Tomah VA. The older veteran, Thomas Baer, died from complications due to a stroke after delays at the VA Urgent Care center, an unavailable CT machine, no helicopter, and after being driven by ambulance to a new facility long after the initial onset of his symptoms.

One of the witnesses, Ryan Honl, a combat veteran who suffers from PTSD, was a whistleblower at the Tomah VA Medical Center. Honl testified about how his electronic medical file was accessed by multiple persons at the VA. “However, as soon as I blew the whistle, I started hearing about my instability from other employees,” he writes in his official testimony. “In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, [Dr. David Houlihan’s] attorney alluded to my mental health status,” he states. “Shortly after while VA investigators were in the Tomah VA, Police Chief Huffman directed that a police report be done on me by my former supervisor…and two coworkers…four months after I resigned over a supposed ‘threatening incident’ that took place while I was an employee before I resigned.”

“Clearly, my mental health diagnoses are being used by those I reported in order to discredit me,” he writes.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told Congress earlier this month that “The number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming,” according to Joe Davidson of The Washington Post. In fact, Davidson reports that her testimony revealed that “whistleblower cases reviewed by her office are almost 150 percent higher than historical levels. Nearly 40 percent of her office’s incoming cases are from VA, although her office takes cases from across the government.”

If VA whistleblower cases are up 150 percent when compared to “historical levels,” why aren’t the media questioning President Obama’s leadership on this issue?

“Monday’s session demonstrated that VA’s entrenched culture of retaliation against whistleblowers endures, a year after revelations exploded over poor service and the covering up of long patient wait times,” writes Davidson.

Then he defends Secretary McDonald, writing, “The retaliation continues despite the solid efforts of the current VA secretary, who replaced one driven out by the scandal.”

Accountability and professional standards are set by those at the very top. Secretary McDonald was confirmed last July, yet it appears that little change has happened at the VA under his leadership, nor that of his boss, President Obama.

In previous articles covering the ongoing VA scandal I pointed to the media’s reluctance, if not outright refusal, to implicate the Obama administration for its role in facilitating the ongoing corruption at the VA.

But in some far-left circles this has been taken to the furthest possible conclusion, that the scandal is about to be exploited by the “right wing” for its own purposes.

MSNBC’s Maddow recently minimized the poor treatment received by veterans at the VA, warned that the right wing would soon push to privatize the VA, and gave Secretary McDonald a platform to claim that the administration was actually being “transparent” on this issue.

“One of the reasons I want you to be here tonight, Mr. Secretary [Robert McDonald], is because I do feel like VA is about to have political challenges that it has not faced in at least a generation, if not more, and veterans groups have been able to hold off some of those challenges in the past,” said Maddow on her April 15 show. “…I’m not sure that VA has the political backup right now to fight those battles. And honestly, I’m here partly because I want to sort of raise the flag that this is coming.”

The graphic on the MSNBC broadcast read, “V.A. Secretary on Right-Wing Efforts to Privatize VA.”

Secretary McDonald responded to her by emphasizing the VA’s alleged transparency and desire for “sunshine.” He said:

“That’s why we’re here. We want to get out. We want to be transparent. We now publish our data every two weeks online. Sunshine is a great, transparency is a great benefit to us. We’re gonna do our share. We’re gonna improve the results of the VA. We’re working very hard to do that, and hopefully veterans will be happy with the care we provide them. It’s the most exciting mission that we could possibly have.”

Both participants in this highly disingenuous interchange may have wished to assure the public about the VA’s integrity, but the growing news about corruption at the VA, prompted in part by Congressional hearings held by Rep. Jeff Miller’s (R-FL) House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, makes it less and likely that the public can be fooled by such false assurances.

Veterans actually served by the VA certainly aren’t being fooled, and a number of them have contacted me after reading my articles on this continuing scandal to say that things are bad, and in some cases even worse than I described.

As is true for most MSNBC shows, Maddow’s presentation of this scandal was highly misleading as well. Veterans groups are now actively asking for change themselves. For example, the price tag for the VA Medical Center in Denver, Colorado has ballooned from $328 million to $1.73 billion. As a result, “The American Legion in Colorado held a protest last year in which members held up ‘JUST BUILD THE DAMN THING’ signs and carried shovels, symbolically ready to build it themselves,” reported The Washington Post’s Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in March.

There is no doubt that the VA is a behemoth of a bureaucracy, and McDonald seems like a sincere and capable manager. But regrettably he also seems to have been captured by the Obama administration’s culture of deceit, of punishing whistleblowers, and of failing to hold people accountable. Hopefully, for the sake of America’s veterans, of which he is one, that culture will change, and change fast. McDonald was caught exaggerating his service history earlier this year, which may have contributed to skepticism about whether he is the right man for this job.

Rachel Maddow’s transparent attempt to cast the VA scandal as the fabrication of right-wing political forces bent on destroying an embattled institution serves as a red herring designed to provide Secretary McDonald, and thereby this administration, with a platform to praise the past successes of this corrupt, mismanaged bureaucracy—at the expense of those veterans who have died or been neglected. But MSNBC and other complicit media aren’t interested in accountability, they’re interested in covering for the Obama administration.


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