Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is a first-term lawmaker, Iraq war veteran, double amputee and former assistant secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department. After recovering from her wounds, she became head of the Illinois Veterans' Department before being nominated by President Obama to join the VA in 2009. She won her House seat in 2012.
The Washington Post first profiled her work at the VA in 2009 and in an interview Monday for an updated profile, she conceded that some of the things she hoped to change as a VA official never happened. Read the full story here and read a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, below:
Q: Thanks for doing this. I know you’ve been conflicted about this.
Duckworth: "I’m not conflicted, I just don’t want veterans to be scared off from contacting VA and going in for help. There’s always that line, that you want to bring the issues to light and I’m going to talk about them and be very clear that I’m disappointed and we can do better. But I don’t want veterans across this country to suddenly say, 'I’m not going to be able to get into VA,' because they need the help and the help is there."
When did you first hear about this first series of allegations?
Duckworth: "On CNN."
What was your reaction?
[Long pause.] "Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised."
Really? Why not?
"When you have a network as big as VA with everything [Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki] is trying to do, I think it’s very conceivable that somebody would try to do what supposedly happened in Phoenix, because they feel they need to try to needle the metrics. That bothers me a lot."
When you were there, you were an assistant secretary for intergovernmental relations and public affairs. You were the face – you were credited by veterans service organizations to hit the road and explain things and invite veterans to come into the system if they were eligible.
"It was my job to get out to as many facilities as possible."
And you had no oversight responsibility for this type of allegation?
"No, it falls under the Veterans Health Administration and [now-former undersecretary for Veterans Health Administration Robert Petzel]. But that was one of my frustrations – even though I was presidentially appointed, the way the VA is set up, it is so siloed between the three administrations [Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration] and that there is, I think, lack of a sense of accountability almost to central office.
"For example, one of the first things I worked on is issues with, when there’s a problem, you need to contact the veterans first. You can go back and look – we had the issue in Pennsylvania where we had improperly sterilized equipment. And oftentimes, I would find out about it because the local public affairs officer would tell me because it was picked up by the local media. But they never told central office. That was frustrating to me, because they were trying to deal with it locally and it would be three, four or five months later. As soon as central office and Secretary Shinseki found out about it, we’d act on it immediately.
"But it could have gone three or four months before we’d find out. That’s the frustration: If this problem [in Phoenix] has been going on for a year or however long, this should have come to light well before that so that it could have been fixed. If there’s a problem where they can’t physically get veterans in in 14 days due to lack of staffing, central office needed to know that so it could be fixed. But if that information isn’t getting through the silos into the central office, it gets very frustrating."
It’s stunning that you would say that you’re not surprised. That suggests that it’s systemic and that it’s been going on for at least the last five years – the culture of hiding things or not complying with Washington’s orders.
"I’m not surprised because it’s such a large network that you’re going to find problems. That’s what I’m saying. It’s 900 facilities – it’s the largest hospital and clinic network in the entire nation. It’s bigger than anything else out there. So when you have that, even one time is not acceptable, but even if it’s one percent of that, that’s nine hospitals. I want to know how many. And I’m not surprised that some of this is happening when you have a bureaucracy that large, but the key is to have some kind of a system and quality control in place to make sure that the data that you’re getting is correct and that you’re out there checking. I tried when I was there to get out to as many facilities as I could and individually sit and talk to people."
Have you talked to the secretary at all recently?
When was the last time you saw him?
"Probably [nine months ago]. I think I’ve seen him at a couple of Washington events."
Should he resign?
"I think he should fix it. I’m not putting trying to put words in his mouth here, but I would think that he would want to fix it."
Are there are other people around him that should resign?
"Yeah, I’m not quite sure who’s still there, but they’re in the middle of going through a change right now. I just think that there are issues with the way it's set up, where you have those regional offices and the [regional headquarters] that are pretty autonomous and hospital directors who can be pretty autonomous where they are."
You said back in 2009 that “I’d mop floors for Rick Shinseki.” Would you still mop floors for him?
"Yes, I think he truly cares about the veterans. I’d do anything to help veterans. I just, I think where I would have done things differently from him is I would have fired some people. I would not have tried to build consensus and get buy-in."
Your job was to go out and tell veterans to come into the system and modernize the department. Has this undone what you were trying to do?
"It’s a step towards it."
So you must be pissed off.
"I am, I am pissed off about folks who would do this. And now it sounds like my own VA hospital may be having these problems as well. I sort of feel like, damm it, your loyalty is to the veteran, your loyalty is not to a hospital director or an undersecretary or to a veteran. Your loyalty is to a veteran. If the 14-day waiting period wasn’t working, then you needed to fix it and report that it’s not working. But to just do what bureaucracies do – just adjust and wait out a secretary and give him what he wants to see – that pisses me off. I also know that a lot of hospitals are not doing that. They’re doing right by veterans.
"I used to have to sit for three hours at my hospital to get my prescription. Four hours sometimes. It’s not that way anymore – I get my prescription by mail, it comes right to my house, I don’t have to worry about it. It’s right there and so simple. That’s an improvement. But if the system wasn’t in place, then we needed to know about it and improve it. These folks who cheat the system undermine it for everyone."
I know you’re a fan of the president and you owe to some extent your political career to him and others from Illinois who got to know you and encouraged you to do this. But how would you assess President Obama’s handling of veterans’ issues?
[Long pause.] "I think that, it’s hard, you know, because Mrs. Obama has done so much and Mrs. Biden has done so much and I see that as part of the president’s push. I think he’s relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point."
He hasn’t said enough in recent days?
"I think he’s said, but it needs to be more than a comment in the aftermath of a news story like this. I think that if [White House chief of staff] Dennis McDonough stays engaged and if the president – he’s appointed an adviser – that if that continues, we need that."
That’s not a ringing endorsement of his veterans’ legacy.
"I think he’s done a lot. I don’t know what more he could have done. He appointed Eric Shinseki, it’s been one of the top things on the first lady and Dr. Biden’s agenda. That has been going gangbusters. I don’t know any other president who’s done more than that. But now that we have this crisis, we need more."
So he should be out there more forcefully?
"I’m not interested in the show. I’m really not interested in the eyewash and the show. What I’m interested in, is Dennis McDonough going to stay involved and is he going to be getting that information to the president everyday? You can go out there and put on a show and have the media show up, but if you’re not going to follow through, that’s not good.
"To put your chief of staff on it is a pretty forceful thing. I hope that that remains and that stays and that the pressure stays on Secretary Shinseki to finish this audit and do it quickly so we can figure out how extensive the problem is and what we need to do to fix it. And if we need to hire some hospital directors, then we have to fire some hospital directors."
When we first met in 2009, you talked about your typical day, that you had to get in each morning before Shinseki’s 8 a.m. daily meeting where he’d get a briefing. What was he like in those meetings?
"He was very attentive. He was listening to what people were reporting to him; he’d ask insightful questions. We were always talking about what’s happening out there, what’s going on. And we were also very focused on trying to implement these new standards and systems that he was trying to put into place and trying to turn this giant battleship of an agency."
There was concern or criticism about Shinseki’s detached anger at the Senate hearing last week. He said he was “mad as hell,” but he seemed passive. Is that how he is?
But does the anger permeate in some way if he’s upset with something? Does he instill a fear of disappointment?
"Yeah, and I think part of it is a difference in culture. If you come from a military culture and you go into see the general or the commander and he talks to you very calmly and says, ‘I’m very disappointed in you,’ that’s devastating. That’s part of it. That’s just his manner. That’s how he is. He’s a purposeful kind of a guy. But he cared. He cares about veterans as deeply as anyone. His entire life has been spent taking care of soldiers. He talks about the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as youngsters – that we have to watch out for these youngsters.
"That care is there – I’m just, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in how this could happen. How people who I know care about veterans could think that a paper-based system like this, to get around a system just so you can get around reports is acceptable. It’s devastating, and especially if veterans got sicker or died. You would want to fix the systems so that those people could get in sooner – not provide eyewash. And that makes me really mad."
When was your most recent call to the VA care?
"Today, trying to get appointments at the amputee clinic and the women’s health clinic."
And how long did it take to get a human on the line?
"I still don’t have an appointment, but I was able to get through to talk to the coordinators at both and they’re going to get back to me. My situation is a little unique, because the dates that they have available are days that I’m in session. What they offered me was all within 10 days, but unfortunately I’m here."
How long did it take?
"Fifteen minutes or so for each call."
Is that the normal length?
"I would assume. Usually I just go through the appointment desk and choose one of the appointments they give me."
Should it take that long?
How long should it take?
"To get through to someone? Well, to be fair, there was the option to leave my message and they would call me back and I didn’t do that, because I specifically wanted to talk to someone."
Which is perfectly reasonable.
"Yeah, but 15 minutes is also acceptable for something that long. As a consumer, I would like to have it done sooner, but it’s also not the longest I’ve waited. There’s Comcast or AT&T or my credit card. But I sort of feel like the service for veterans should be better than Comcast or my credit card."
Most important, how are you doing?
"I’m good. I’m hanging in there. I was in Congress for six months and they put me on blood pressure medication. I flew helicopters in combat and I was fine, and I survived 13 months in recovery in the hospital. ... I got to Congress and six months later I’m on blood pressure medication. Fourteen months later, they doubled the dosage!"