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McCaskill, Blunt Demand Better Care For Military Veterans

Gage Skidmore | Flickr

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is releasing the latest results of a survey of Missouri military veterans who have received care at Veterans Administration’s facilities around the state, including Cochran and Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.

While not disclosing any details, McCaskill told reporters Tuesday that “every year we’ve done it, the VA has done a little better. I’m particularly pleased this year because we’ve had even more responses this year than we had last year.”

She noted that the surveys began in 2010, after Cochran came under fire for possibly exposing dental patients to diseases because of improper sterilization of equipment.

This yer, the timing of the survey results comes as some VA facilities elsewhere have been under attack over accusations of inappropriately long wait times before veterans could get appointments for medical care.

McCaskill, D-Mo., recently co-signed a letter with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asking Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to answer allegations about the delays in mental-health care at Cochran.

Even so, McCaskill told reporters Tuesday that she wanted to wait until the federal Inspector General’s office concludes its investigation before reaching any broad conclusions about how the VA is caring for  veterans. “It remains to be seen if this is a systemic issue or if this was isolated to a facility or a few facilities,’’ she said.

As for veterans' care in Missouri, she said,  "I can only judge by the surveys that are being filled out by the veterans themselves that things have improved. All three of our VA facilities get strong marks by these surveys we've done in the last three years."

Blunt offered a more critical assessment in a separate conference call with reporters earlier Tuesday, observing that he suspects the problem is broad. “This ought to solved, and it ought to be solved right now,’’ he said. “It’s an outrage that our veterans aren’t being treated better than they are being treated.”

But Blunt stopped short of calling for Shinseki to step down, saying that a change at the top would likely delay any needed changes.  “The VA needs to be looked at from top to bottom,’’ he said. “And the woest thing that could happen is that you pick a couple of scapegoats, responsible or not, and use that as the excuse not to get to the bottom of this problem.” 

Blunt did, however, blame President Barack Obama.  Old news and video clips, he said, make clear that Obama has known about the problem for years. “It doesn’t matter as much who the secretary is here,” Blunt said. “The president knew about this in 2008. He was told by the transition team in 2008 that there were growing problems out there about providing services in a timely way and having records that reflected the actuality of what was going on.”

McCaskill, meanwhile, emphasized that “we have surged spending for veterans in the years I have been in Congress.”  She pointed to controversies about poor veterans care under President George W. Bush, prior to 2007, when “they were trying to do things on the cheap.”

McCaskill said that more improvements in veterans care are needed, but said that the broader lesson to take from the latest accusations is the importance of “constant attention to the care veterans are receiving.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.