Minneapolis VA officials made jokes despite the severity of numerous scandals plaguing VA nationally and locally during its VA town hall meeting. This twisted mindset that fails to accept responsibility for harming vets could not be more evident than in the selection of questions from veterans to the panel of Minneapolis VA Health Center officials.
The moderator began to chuckle as he read the first question with a misplaced childlike flutter in his voice, “Why are the prices so high in the [VA chow hall]?” VA staff and nonveterans alike chuckled at the kid like question while harmed and sick veterans stood by and waited for their opportunity to be heard.
So I am going to come out and ask the question that many Americans and veterans are wondering. Are all VA town hall meetings a sick joke? Do veterans seem like clowns and fools to VA staff? We already know they think all vets are muppets like on Sesame Street.
We will answer this question during this edition of Monday Morning Quarterback for Veterans.
Hi, I am your host, Benjamin Krause, creator of the community and website called DisabledVeterans.org. This is the number one place for no-nonsense coverage of VA scandals and crimes across the country along with benefits information.
Today, I decided to take some time to explain what I think is going on behind the magic show that is the whole VA Town Hall / “listening sessions” being conducted across the country after attending the Minneapolis VA Town Hall here.
Here is what we will cover today:
- My impression of VA Town Hall meetings
- Summary of Minneapolis VA Town Hall
- Media coverage of Minneapolis VA Session
MY IMPRESSION OF VA TOWN HALL MEETINGS
Robert McDonald is gradually winning over the hearts and minds of the American public by encouraging more interaction between VA staff and veterans. One way he has encouraged greater interaction is by mandating VA town hall meetings across the country.
At first the idea sounded good until reports surfaced that local VA facilities were spending more on advertising for other things than on ads to inform veterans that a VA town hall was about to commence. Few veterans know when they are being held.
The press always seemed to know but veterans across the country fail to show up due to a lack of information as to the schedule. Dates tend to only be spread by word of mouth. This begs the question: Why does the press find this stuff out while veterans are kept in the dark?
Assuming the truth of my observation, that the press is intended to show up while veterans remain largely uninformed and fail to go, then the answer seems obvious. The VA town hall meetings are a media ploy with two goals.
First, they are intended to show the American public that VA cares and VA is doing something about it with Robert McDonald at the helm. Second, low veteran turn out does portray a message – that not too many veterans were really harmed and thus care enough to show up at a VA town hall meeting.
[see example: low turnout in Nashville]
Therefore, with ample coverage that the Department of Veterans Affairs is hard at work, America is free to go back to sleep and enter yet another war in the same Middle East region – a war which will create more disabled veterans. But this time, as the subconscious argument goes, Mr. McDonald will be able to stem the tide of corruption and scandal in a way Shinseki did not.
What do you think of the VA town hall meetings you have been to? Is the media portraying them as useful or as bitch sessions? Do veterans know about them and show up?
I believe many veterans who were harmed and would be interested in going fail to attend because they are not informed. This lack of attendance gives VA a great PR moment with local press without the angry voices of harmed veterans. Win-Win.
My position on these VA town hall meetings fits with the media manipulation that surfaced last week. There, VA OIG reportedly allowed VA Central to change the verbiage in its final report on the Phoenix VA deaths.
[READ ABOUT VA OIG MANIPULATION HERE]
The Washington Examiner exposed that VA not only manipulated the language of the final report not only with the hope of twisting media sound bytes, but that it also used an illogical investigation scheme that would never find wrongdoing.
At the center of this is the VA claim that no wait time caused the death, which seems to make sense since waiting for care will rarely causes the death of a person suffering from a bullet wound or pneumonia or cancer. The condition will cause the death – cancer kills; waiting years for a colon exam does not kill you, it just speeds up your death. Yet, no right-minded medical investigator would ever use such a scheme when investigating a death because it shifts the blame away from rightfully guilty parties.
VA has a narrative theme it is broadcasting to the American public. VA is sorry that it abused veterans. VA is sorry that veterans may have died but there is no conclusive proof that waiting for health care killed anyone. The American public has seen this theme repeated through sound bytes following the release of the manipulated VA OIG report. And, finally, this narrative theme is then repeated by low turn out at VA town hall meetings where ample VA managers are onsite to help all veterans needing assistance or information. But veterans do not show up or they merely complain like Oscar the Grouch.
In the media, claims that VA abused veterans appear overblown. America rests easy knowing it provides the best and most timely health care to veterans imaginable [sic]. America goes back to sleep and we send the next generation of our brave sons and daughters off to fight in another trumped up war with no end in sight.
Iconic writer Hunter S. Thompson saw the signs lining up all too conveniently following the 9/11 attack when he commented, “We are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.”
Could deadly and dangerous health care at VA be a part of this never ending cog in the “At War” wheel Thompson talked about? Could greater outcry encourage more accountability that discourages frivolous wars in the future?
There is no doubt that Veterans Affairs are a fundamental piece of America’s war fighting machine. Looking back to the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act in 1944, § 693 reads:
“The Veterans’ Administration is declared to be an essential war agency and entitled to priority equal to the highest granted any department or agency of the Government in personnel, service, space, equipment, supplies, and material under any laws, Executive orders, and regulations pertaining to priorities.” (emphasis added) Veterans Benefits, West Publishing Co, 1946
Do you think veterans truly get the treatment such an essential agency would warrant in light of this former perception of VA as a priority?
Let’s talk about what happened at this “essential war agency” located in Minneapolis VA Town Hall and others.
A SUMMARY OF THE MINNEAPOLIS VA TOWN HALL
“Why are the prices so high in the [VA chow hall]?” served as the icebreaker question to a room concerned about veterans abuses and a recent scandal involving fraudulent records practices. That question set the tone and switched concern to anger for many attendees.
To give perspective, two weeks ago, reports surfaces that two VA employees came forward with scathing reports that Minneapolis VA health care supervision had ordered falsification of records, secret wait lists, and more. Those on site expected talk about that scandal and not some ridiculous question about chow hall prices.
Here is the overview of how it went down.
The Minneapolis VA Town Hall meeting kicked off with around 200 people in a room. Before the start, the VA moderator called everyone to attention and led a half-hearted, insincere pledge of allegiance.
You could feel the lack of sincerity as the speaker strained through the words, making the event kick off with an artificial flavor. It made me feel like I was back in basic training or some sporting event to help us all fall in line for a great performance [sic].
Two VA executives from VISN 23 and Minneapolis VA spoke for the first 20-30 minutes, which left only 30 minutes for veterans to ask questions by note card or on the microphone during the first round. In a typical VA spin move, both leaders talked about how great VA is doing in managing its huge patient load and how well it is managing taxpayer dollars. They threw out numbers without comparisons with private sector, which left me concerned that the example was merely a ploy to make the agency sound huge and to diminish the size of the scandal and those veterans who were harmed.
The second round focused on benefits, which was much less eventful. Half of the room emptied out.
Back to the health care portion.
VISN-23 head Janet Murphy said, “We probably have some work to do to regain the trust and confidence of veterans and our stakeholders.” Probably? Do you live on Mars?
Hell yes VA has to regain trust and confidence of veterans and America after knowingly breaching that trust for over a decade leading up to the scandal that all insiders knew was about to burst. Keep in mind, VA knew the wait list scandal was an issue back to 2001 at least if not earlier.
Minneapolis VA health care director Pat Kelly repeatedly said veterans and the public need to be patient with VA while it makes adjustments after the scandal was exposed. “Please be patient, stand by us and support us while we make necessary changes.”
Put a different way, Kelly might as well have said, “Please stand by and support us while we abuse and possibly kill you to save a buck.” Or, “Will you support our abuse with your lack of action and outrage?” Or, “Will you turn your head and ignore that we will not punish the evil doers?”
Once veterans took the floor, some of the media immediately started to leave the room. For those that remained, they were witnesses to countless veterans voicing concerns over failures to provide care and verbal abuses of many veterans, including minorities.
One Marine veteran, Levi Jones, hammered VA executives with the following:
“The VA should be ashamed. You’ve been bullying me for so many years.”
“You don’t have a 5-star facility up here, you have a one-star and let me tell you, if you had a 5-star facility providing quality and consistent care you wouldn’t have a room full of people here.”
“Why does it take somebody with a claim to go on Fox News and 9 days later miraculously their back claim shows up and they are taken care of? Why does that have to happen?”
“If we want resources we’re heading out in the community because the VA is not providing them.”
“By far, this is the worst VA I’ve attended.”
“The senior leadership of the VA is here for show. My own experience, as I relayed in the meeting, was that they are inefficient. They are untrained to provide quality health care at this time.”
This kind of claim was the norm in addition to other statements that questioned local VA spending on building beautification instead of functional MRI machines that work.
In the end, I am not convinced veterans got their points across.
A defiant Pat Kelly later told reporters that he did not suspect the veterans voicing concerns were the norm, in an apparent attempt to diminish the importance of what was stated. “I don’t think that is the generally-experiences phenomenon amongst our veterans.”
MEDIA COVERAGE OF MINNEAPOLIS VA TOWN HALL
The big deal relates to how local media interpreted the town hall meeting and what they relayed to readers and viewers.
Overall, reporters varied the number of veterans at the VA town hall meeting:
I would say there were around 200 attendees since there is no way any person could know who was in attendance as a veteran versus a VA employee or the press. Plus, if you use a bigger number, it sounds like the town hall meeting was more important than otherwise.
So I am concerned that the other two sources (ABC and Star Trib) included the actual number of veterans since there is no way of knowing how many were actually there. Why not just report the number of people in the room?
Nonetheless, coverage overall slanted the issues relating to scandal in a way seemed to avoid the more severe issues such as fraudulent record keeping and secret wait lists. Instead, some of the reports and news footage, particularly ABC, took on a tone that the veterans voicing concerns were mere complainers and in the vast minority. This kind of position supports VA’s proposition that the complaining veterans were in the minority.
And the Minneapolis VA Town Hall meeting was not the only one perceived as a gripe session. At places like Columbia, South Carolina, local media flatly said the session turned into a gripe session, Columbia VA town hall meeting turns into claims gripe session. Any reporter has the ability to choose words wisely. Here, the author selected “gripe” instead of “voiced concerns” in much the same way ABC selected “75-100 veterans” instead of “200 attendees.”
Let us not forget the story where VA trained its employees to not think critique or honestly about veterans’ concerns. Instead, VA employees were training to reclassify our concerns as mere “perceptions of problems”. Instead of taking us seriously, they believe veterans are muppets who complain and should be laughed at like Oscar the Grouch by literally comparing us to Oscar in training materials.
This begs the question, are veterans really muppets? Or, are we heroes who were willing to at one point hand over a blank check to Uncle Sam for a price up to and including our lives?
Nothing can be more plainly concluded – that veterans are muppets – in light of the very first question out of the shoot about chow hall prices instead of dead veterans. How appalling and insulting in light of the scandals?
That kind of question was inappropriate and sick since it was selected with the intention to lighten the mood despite the deadly serious nature of the VA town hall meeting on the heals of a huge fraud scandal.
In the end, VA gets to look like it cares, veterans’ real concerns are diminished, and America can go back to sleep because all good muppets, er I mean veterans, are being well cared for [sic]. VA staff thinks veterans are foolish clowns who will just go along for the ride except for a few loudmouth complainers.
What have you experienced at your VA town hall meeting? Was it useful or did you come away wondering what the whole procedure was all about? Did VA employees crack any inappropriate jokes at the beginning of the question and answer session?