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Veterans Denied Care

Aired May 15, 2014 - 18:28   ET


VAN JONES, CO-HOST: Wolf, Republicans are on a witch hunt going after the one guy who's actually trying to clean up the V.A.

S.E. CUPP, HOST: Well, Excuse me for not feeling sorry for Eric Shinseki. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, scandalous mistreatment of America's veterans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Makes me mad as hell.

ANNOUNCER: Waiting lists. Patient deaths. Manipulation and cover-ups.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could you explain to me, after knowing all this information, why you should not resign?

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Van Jones. On the right, S.E. Cupp. In the CROSSFIRE, Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, and Jessie Jane Duff of Concerned Veterans for America. How to we take better care of our veterans? Does it start by firing the man at the top? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


CUPP: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm S.E. Cupp on the right.

JONES: And I'm Van Jones on the left. Tonight in the CROSSFIRE, we've got two advocates for America's veterans. Veterans Affair Secretary Eric Shinseki was on Capitol Hill today. He was fighting to keep his job.

CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin actually broke the story in the first place. His reporting is the reason the Senate even had the hearing today. He's here to give us a closer look of how we got here.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Van, and S.E., this is an eruption and a scandal basically because of our reporting out of the Phoenix V.A. Medical Center last month, in which sources told us of a secret waiting list where veterans were simply left waiting for care on a secret list, trying to hide the fact of just how long they had been waiting. Some up to 21 months.

Our same sources tell us at that V.A. facility, 40 veterans, maybe even more, may have died because of delayed care.

But keep in mind, this is only one part of this what we're calling now a V.A. scandal. We've been reporting since last November on wait lists at V.A. facilities across the country that have led, by the V.A.'s own admission to 23 deaths. Some 80, what they're calling adverse medical outcomes.

So these wait list problems have been building, and as we have continued to report, the V.A., the Office of Inspector General, they have all known about all of this. Not just since our reporting, but years and years before when wait list have been brought up and nothing seems to have been done.


JONES: Thanks, Drew. That's terrible. And look, nobody is going to defend this horror show that CNN has uncovered.

But here's the real question, though. How do we fix this, OK? That's the real question if you care about these veterans.

So No. 1, you don't start by firing Eric Shinseki before we even know what's going on. OK. A fair investigation might prove that, in fact, Shinseki is the good guy here, trying to raise the standards while bureaucrats beneath him are sabotaging his positive reform. So you don't fire the guy before the investigation.

No. 2, can we please shut down the kabuki theater here? OK, we've got real people in pain. Let's not forget, though, reckless Republicans started the most recent round of wars, and then Republicans have been blocking the increase for the health care that might have helped some of these wounded warriors.

And now, now those same Republicans are the ones who are screaming the loudest about a system they helped to overload with their wars and are now underfunding. So can we please stop the hypocrisy Olympics, S.E., and just get to the bottom of the situation first?

CUPP: We're going to get to the bottom of it. I guess I'm not surprised you're blaming all of this on Republicans.

JONES: I'm just saying there's got to be some responsibility on both sides.

CUPP: We'll get to it. I think the man at the top would be our first place to start.

We have two veterans in the CROSSFIRE tonight: Larry Korb also served as an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration. And Jessie Jane Duff is with Concerned Veterans for America.

Larry, let me start with you. Even after CNN broke this story about these deaths, which led to the hearings on Capitol Hill today, Secretary Shinseki had this to say in the hearing. Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI: This is a robust system. A good portion of it works. And what we're focusing on is scheduling.


CUPP: Now, for me, Shinseki is not the biggest problem. He's part of the problem. But in what bizarre-o world does a person who chalks up the death of 40 veterans to a scheduling problem get to keep his job?

LAWRENCE KORB, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Wait a second. That's not true. The inspector general who also testified today, which you didn't have, said I've looked into that. There's no evidence that the wait times caused those deaths. And you've got to remember, since general Shinseki took over, himself a wounded warrior...

CUPP: Right.

KORB: ... OK. Basically the number of people, you know, claims being processed has gone down. The number -- the wait times has gone down.

Look, what happened is we assume, and it was Republicans running the country then, that these wars would be short and they'd be over. When general Shinseki said, no, it wouldn't, he was ridiculed by Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, and so we didn't prepare for this.

And if you go back and you take a look at where we were in 2008 and where we are now, we're not where we need to be. But we're much better off than we are.

JESSIE JANE DUFF, CONCERNED VETERANS FOR I'm appalled at all of this because all of you have missing one point. The backlog that started a lot of this mess was not the current wars. It was Vietnam veterans that were allowed in in 2009 because they were never recognized for Agent Orange illness. Never recognized by the V.A. for Agent Orange illness.

So that's where the backlog started, and then that's where the treatment came in. It's not your Afghan and Iraq wars. So let's not talk about that, because that's not even part of the topic. Let's not mix messages here, because this isn't a Republican issue. This is not a Democrat issue. This is a veterans issue. And that's a slap in the face to all veterans when you indicate that it's...

JONES: I'm going to shock you. We agree on something. Agent Orange should have been a part of this thing from the whole beginning and it was Eric Shinseki that brought in...

DUFF: Absolutely.

JONES: Aren't you proud of him for that? Aren't you proud of him for that? DUFF: Then which one is it going to be? You want to blame Republicans. Now you're admitting that it was Agent Orange.

KORB: No, no, no, they did not -- it was -- no doubt it was the Vietnam veterans, of which I'm one, but it was also the fact that they didn't prepare for the mental illness that has begun to overwhelm the system.


CUPP: Let me take Jessie's point and let's agree, let's move forward and talk about solutions. This is like arguing over why you got pregnant. You've got a baby, we have to take care of it.

DUFF: Thank you.

CUPP: We have vets. Whether they exist because of Republicans or Democrats should not matter. We've got them. How are we going to take care of them?

DUFF: Thank you.

CUPP: So let's focus on the solutions.


DUFF: Fifty-five veterans died a day by the V.A.'s own records waiting for benefits in 2011. That's by their own records. That's close to 20,000 veterans who couldn't even get awarded their benefits on time. Average wait time was 345 days. You can get Food Stamps in 30 days. Some veterans are waiting over 600 days.

I'm tired of hearing they weren't prepared. We're five years into this. When he was sworn into office in 2009, in his own testimony he stated "I will get rid of the backlog." And at that point, there were 11,000 veterans that were in the backlog for over a year. It escalated by 2,000 percent under his watch to 245,000 veterans in 4 years.

JONES: No, nope, nope. First of all, first of all...

KORB: That's not right. Your data is all wrong. I'll show it you. You're making it up. Look at the data here. Look at the data, and it's coming down. OK?

JONES: I think you're unfair to Eric Shinseki. First of all, he did move aggressively to deal with the backlog, and one of the things that he did was he changed the definition of backlog from 180 days to 120 days. In other words, what you're talking about is somebody who's a reformer, who's leaning forward trying to solve the problem.


DUFF: ... backlog. I'm sorry, I can't be sympathetic when we're talking about veterans that aren't even getting fair ratings. I deal with veterans every day. And now they're trying to shove these ratings through, and many of them aren't even getting accurate ratings. And the appeals are climbing. We have over a quarter of a million veterans in the appeals. Average wait time: 1,200 days.

KORB: But why isn't Disabled veterans of America saying he should stay in and commending him? They're the ones most affected.

DUFF: American Legion is asking for it.

KORB: American Legion is not the disabled veterans.

DUFF: I'm a member of Disabled American Veterans. It doesn't mean we all agree.

KORB: OK, and I'm a member of American legion and I don't agree, either.

CUPP: Van -- one at a time, guys. Van and Larry, to your point, let's take your word that Eric Shinseki had all of these great recommendations and was a leader. Doesn't this make the point the bureaucrats underneath him were unable to implement this because it's too big and unwieldy? Does it matter when he wanted to do? He didn't get to do it.

KORB: Well, I think it matters if people cook the books. And they should be held accountable. That's why you have an inspector general investigation. What we're trying to do. Again, the inspector general testified today after general Shinseki.

JONES: My thing is, look, this is horrible. Nobody -- everybody is shocked. It's a bipartisan outrage across the country. But the reality is, people -- don't you think that people are jumping the gun?

DUFF: No, because we are talking about this over five years.

JONES: Let me finish my question. Don't you think that people are jumping the gun to say that he should be fired before there's been an investigation? Under George W. Bush you had a horrible situation with Walter Reed.

DUFF: Let's get back to this.

JONES: They didn't...

DUFF: We should fire executives at Walter Reed.

KORB: No, they didn't fire the secretary of defense. They didn't fire Bob Gates.

DUFF: Secretary of defense had the authority to fire people. Right now Secretary Shinseki does not. That's the first thing. Get the V.A. management accountability act in there. That's the first thing.

The second thing, when he was asked today by the senator if he would get rid of his management, he said, "I don't want to jump the gun on that. I want to talk to my I.G." Wait a minute, everybody is talking about Phoenix. I'm sorry. I've been studying this over a year. You've five dead veterans in Dorn medical facility who could not get in on time for colonoscopies. And that is due to mismanagement.

You've got bonuses being given to executives when they have gotten mismanagement problems. You've got one in Dayton, Ohio, who had an unsanitary dental facility and still got an $11,000 bonus. So you're rewarding executives. Meanwhile, they have junk going on on their watch.

So it's not just Phoenix. It's all over the nation.

CUPP: There's been a lack of accountability, it seems like, for quite a while under Shinseki, and a number of deaths not just in Phoenix under his watch. People are getting frustrated that he's not been held accountable.

But look, I don't just want Secretary Shinseki to get a pink slip. Next, I'll explain why I want to see someone behind bars.

First today's "CROSSFIRE Quiz": How many veterans receive health care from the V.A. every year? Is it 1.7 million, 6.3 million, or 14.2 million? We'll have the answer when we get back.


CUPP: Welcome back.

Now, the answer to our CROSSFIRE quiz. Every year, 6.3 million veterans receive health care from the V.A. Of course, we thank them for their service.

But, today, after CNN investigations revealed some veterans died because they were kept on secret waiting lists instead of getting treatment, a Senate committee started asking some questions. Once again the Obama administration is circling the wagons to protect its own. President Obama says he still has faith in Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, just like he stood by Kathleen Sebelius during the glitches and Hillary Clinton after Benghazi.

Just this week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department has no plans to investigate the mess at the V.A. He's content to sit back and let the V.A. investigate the V.A.

Well, at least one Democrat is smart enough to realize that's a bad idea. Here's Senator Richard Blumenthal at today's hearing.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Isn't there evidence here of criminal wrongdoing, that it's falsifying records, false statements to the federal government? That's a crime under the --

ERIC SHINSEKI, V.A. SECRETARY: Should be, yes. BLUMENTHAL: And wouldn't it be appropriate to ask for assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other similar agency?


CUPP: You'd think so. Yes.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Larry Korb, and Jessie Jane Duff.

Larry, you know, the DOJ has not been shy in their investigations. They investigated media leaks, investigated Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They investigated e-book price fixing. But they have no plans to investigate the deaths of 40 veterans.

Why does it seem like instead of holding people accountable, the administration wants to protect the people currently in place?

LAWRENCE KORB, FORMER ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, first of all, as I mentioned before, the inspector general who, by the way, is independent --

CUPP: Of course.

KORB: -- of the secretary, he or she is confirmed by the Congress, reports to the Congress, said there's no evidence that any of the deaths are related to the waiting list. That's him. OK? What he's investigating now, we'll find --

CUPP: Yes, but, Larry, even Eric Shinseki today said that the I.G. is overloaded and has too much work on its plate. Why are we waiting even further to figure out what this report -- we know what happened.

KORB: No, we don't know what happened. We know whistleblowers. Do you believe Edward Snowden?

OK. I'm asking you. You've got whistleblowers here coming out. Now, the I.G. is not big enough, you can get more people in the I.G.

CUPP: Right.

KORB: So, that's what you need to do. Then, if they find criminal things, then they turn it over to the Justice Department.

CUPP: Do you think criminal charges are going to happen?

KORB: I don't know. OK?

I mean, you know, we always jump to conclusions and then we find out, hey, we overreacted.

VAN JONES, CO-HOST: Now, to you, you would have to agree this is not a Democrat problem, that the V.A. has been a bipartisan mess for a while. Wouldn't you agree with that?

JESSE JANE DUFF: I would agree that the V.A. has never been run well. It's government-run health care. It's a government bureaucracy, the second largest bureaucracy next to DOD. So, it's not run well.

JONES: And so, it's a bipartisan problem. And, frankly, the Republicans had an opportunity to help fix it.

I want to show you something that was said by somebody I think you actually respect. You mentioned the American Legion. He says, "I don't know how anyone who voted no today can look a veteran in the eye and justify the vote."

He's not talking about this mess. He's talking about the vote in February where Republicans stood together in the Senate and blocked more help for the V.A. Aren't you concerned about Republicans also not doing right by veterans?

DUFF: They're -- that's a misleading argument, what you're saying there, because more help for the V.A. was going to allow more veterans into system who didn't have service-related disability. You cannot have a system that can't even take care of those with service- related disability and have everybody who checked a box and was a desk jockey get into the V.A. They can't handle what they've got.

So, that's a misleading argument. I do believe that the V.A. is being mismanaged and increased in that in the last five years significantly.

JONES: Hold on, wait, wait, I want to just pin you down on something. What you just said I thought was shockingly disappointing. There was a bill that was a real opportunity and a real shot to protect people who serve this country.

DUFF: Bernie Sanders' bill?

JONES: Are you saying --

DUFF: You're talking about Bernie Sanders' bill?

JONES: Hold on a second, are you saying that the only people you think who serve this country who need help and support are ones who had a weapon? You're saying that all of our servicemembers --

DUFF: That's not what I said. That's not what I said.


DUFF: I'm asking you --

JONES: Are you calling them desk jockeys?

DUFF: -- is that Bernie Sanders' bill you're talking about?


DUFF: Bernie Sanders' bill wanted to allow everybody who served to go into the V.A. medical system. And you can't do that. The V.A. is set up for service-related disability.

If you serve four years and you got hurt, you can get service. But you can't just come back 60 years later and say, I served 20 years ago, and you need to get served by the V.A.

It's not -- it's service-related disability.

KORB: No. You got it wrong. The V.A. allows you if you have served and you have financial problems where you can't get it, they let people in like that. And you mentioned earlier about the Agent Orange thing coming back. We don't know now people who, you know, had no disability.

When I got out, they didn't know about Agent Orange when we left. They never talked about it. A couple of years ago, I came down with colon cancer, and the doctor said it was probably Agent Orange.

DUFF: Absolutely.

KORB: I didn't go to the V.A., because thank God I work at a place that has health insurance. But you don't know. And that's what Bernie Sander's bill was trying to say.

DUFF: There's 22 million veterans in this country, and they can't even serve the 6 million we have now. You're going to saturate a system. It would collapse it. That's what I'm saying.

CUPP: Let me address that. I mean, some have argued, and some are arguing and continued to argue that this is Republicans blocking votes and the lack of funding on the part of Republicans. And a panel of experts today resoundingly rejected the idea that is an issue of funding. The V.A. has increased its funding, doubled it in fact between 2001 and 2013.

JONES: We doubled the force.

CUPP: It has 300,000 employees. This isn't an issue of funding and staffing. Isn't this an issue, as we said, of unwieldy bureaucracy that cannot be managed?

KORB: Well, there is no doubt about the fact that it's a giant bureaucracy and we've had trouble managing it.

But I would argue it's getting much better. Since Rick Shinseki has been in there, the number of people receiving care is up 20 percent, OK? His budget isn't up 20 percent. You were going back to a 2001.

It has increased. Things are getting better. The number of claimants has gone down from 800,000 to 500,000. OK?

So when you say things -- is it perfect? Heck no. And I think we need to -- when we go to war, regardless of whom, to count that as a cost, because you owe it to those men and women for all of the time.

JONES: Very good. Well, stay here. We're going to get you guys at home in on this argument.

And please weigh in on our "Fireback" question. Do you think at home, should Secretary Shinseki resign from the Department of Veteran Affairs over this? Tweet yes or no using #Crossfire. I'll give you the results after the break.

We're also going to have our outrages of the day. I am personally outraged about something that happened today at lunch. Tell you about it when we get back.


JONES: Welcome back.

Now, it's time for the outrages of the day.

You know, what did you eat for lunch today? As for me, I grabbed a chicken sandwich. Now, don't blame me. Every day, one out of every four Americans eats some fast foods, which means our waistlines are getting bigger.

But the paychecks for the people who prepare that food are still way too small. Fast food workers earn on average just $11,000 a year. They work all year. They get $11,000.

Here is the outrage. The CEOs, their bosses make double that, double in just one day. That's why today, thousands of fast food workers in 33 countries have staged an actual strike. And that's why the minimum wage should be a living wage. It's something for you at home to chew on.

CUPP: OK. Well, how is this for you. A teacher in Hancock County, Ohio, was suspended only 10 days for lifting a kindergartner up by the face and pinning him to the wall.

Here is the shocking video.

Barb Williams, a teacher at the Riverdale Schools, essentially got an early start to her summer vacation as there are only ten days left of school for manhandling a child who is supposed to be under her care. Now, to put this in context, a tenth grader was recently suspended in Maine for the same length of time for having a yellow squirt gun in school.

Now, as a child, I was hit by a teacher in front of the entire grade. It was humiliating and terrifying.

There is no place for educators who lay hands on our children in our schools. Hancock County parents should demand she be fired immediately and sent on a permanent summer vacation.

JONES: Hear, hear on that.

Listen, let's check our "Fireback" results. We asked you at home. Should Secretary Shinseki resign from the Department of Veteran Affairs? Right now, 43 percent of you say yes, and 57 percent say no.

So, listen, after today's testimony based on this, do you think he is going to be able to survive this whole thing?

DUFF: I think he is going to survive, because under this administration, they all survive. They do.

JONES: That's just terrible.

CUPP: Well, no one is held accountable. It's true. No one goes.

JONES: What do you think?

KORB: I think he'll survive basically because he's done a good job with the mess he was handed, not just from the Bush administration, but from other long period of time. And have basically, he himself is a disabled American veteran.

JONES: Don't you think he is actually being undermined by people under him? Even on Agent Orange, he did what you want him to do and now you're against him.

DUFF: I would just say that I applaud him for bringing in Agent Orange. I don't applaud him for being ill-prepared to manage it.

We have had scandal after scandal. People are talking about Phoenix, this goes back years. And I have highlighted many of these scandals, and they should have been investigated a long time ago. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and if they started investigating, they would have found this.

CUPP: (INAUDIBLE) acted today, how many letters, how many dead veterans before someone is held accountable?

JONES: I want to appreciate both of you for your service. I want to thank you, Larry Korb and Jesse Jane Duff.

The debate is going to continue online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

CUPP: From the right, I'm S.E. Cupp.

Join us next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.