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The Culture of Incompetence at the VA is Sickening

Indifference, Laziness, and a Declining Work Ethic Threatens the Fabric of Society

We have a culture of incompetence in the U.S. Too many workers do not care about the quality of their work, timeliness of doing it, and, in some cases, whether the work gets done at all. In large bureaucracies like the Veterans Administration, payments to medical professionals are not based on the number of patients treated or overall patient care; instead the feeling is that I get paid regardless of these factors so there is no incentive to meet the higher standards we expect from our doctors and medical facilities. The recent VA scandal has crushed the doctor’s oath to first do no harm.

Two weeks ago, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki declared himself “mad as hell” over the allegations of wait-list fraud in Phoenix, where 40 veterans passed away before accessing medical assistance while the office falsified records. Shinseki also pronounced himself saddened by the consequences of the VA’s failures, and pledged to get to the bottom of them — and allegations at five other offices that arose from other whistleblowers.

At nearly the same time as Shinseki testified before Congress, the Ocala News (Florida) reported that a seventh VA office in Gainesville had discovered a secret wait list that had 200 veterans waiting for medical care.

News of secret waiting lists and falsified records at VA hospitals around the country has shocked the collective conscience of Americans who know in their hearts that our returning veterans should receive the best treatment available. All too many vets return from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious medical conditions and reports that they have to wait for weeks or months is repulsive to many of us.

I’m sickened by reports of allegations that some veterans on waiting lists at the Veterans Affairs health facilities had died while waiting for appointments. Reports surfaced at the Phoenix facility that the secret waiting lists were meant to hide delays and could have been used so management executives could get bonuses related to shorter wait times.

Muriel Newman, union president for the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, told The Phoenix Sun that the VA administration had placed chief psychiatrist Dr. Rajiv Tandon, administrative officer Karen Chin and Peter Durand, the chief of the mental health service call line, on administrative leave after the discovery of the list at the Gainesville VA hospital and will remain that way until a review is conducted into the list and the circumstances surrounding it.

The union claims that this wasn’t a “waiting list,” but a list of veterans who needed callbacks for appointments. What’s the difference? Appointment callbacks in most medical offices are used to confirm appointment dates. If these veterans were being listed outside the computerized appointment system, that sounds very much like an attempt to avoid entering them into the system for longer than 14 days before the first available appointment. What other purpose would a paper list containing 219 patients serve, anyway?

These problems raise important issues of accountability and transparency at VA hospitals. I find it hard to believe that heads haven’t rolled starting with Secretary Shinseki. Whatever happened to “the buck stops here?" If this had occurred in corporate America, you better believe those in charge would have been fired immediately.

Our culture of incompetence born out of indifference, laziness, and a declining work ethic threatens the very fabric of our society. We used to be the “can do” nation. Now all too many Americans feel entitled to be taken care of by the government and, because they know it is true, they lack the initiative to work for the sake of working, and to be contributing members of society. Worker lack of initiative isn't the only problem. It’s the government that has led the way down the road of the culture of incompetence.

Scandal after scandal has occurred in the last few years from lapses at the Secret Service to the General Services Administration to the IRS and now the VA. When will it stop? Like all problems the healing and course direction cannot change until we admit the underlying problem in America is a declining work ethic, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. The reality is we are in denial about the fact that other countries like China make our work ethic look like a relic of the past.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 27, 2014 Professor Mintz teaches at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and also blogs at:

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