GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he met with top officials at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Gainesville on Friday and learned that two veterans died since 2010 because they weren't treated in a timely manner.
He said compared to other hospitals, those numbers are relatively low, but in the words of the senator, "Heads need to roll."
"And so heads are going to roll," Nelson said. "And when it comes down to any dispute like this, I take the side of the veteran."
Nelson teamed with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to write new legislation that would give the secretary of the VA the authority to terminate top executives, who may be to blame for recent issues plaguing the VA.
Nelson's visit to the hospital lasted less than one hour, but he said that was all the time he needed to determine that the VA's problems start at the top.
"There's something wrong in the system, and it looks like from my visit to (the) Tampa and Gainesville hospitals like it's up in the bureaucracy," Nelson said.
Nelson said he learned that the computer software used by VA hospitals is outdated and might have contributed to long wait times and secret waiting lists alleged at some facilities. The senator said he does not support the termination of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, saying the problem is bigger than him.
"I think for five and a half years he's been trying to tackle this tired bureaucracy and get it to move in something other than slow motion," Nelson said.
Nelson said Gainesville's facility is understaffed, and it needs more space to accommodate the demands. Gainesville's VA saw more than 38,000 veterans over the past four years. The veterans we spoke with had mixed feelings on whether Nelson's visit will bring about any change.
"I think it's a waste of time, all this investigation," said Vietnam veteran Mark Gibbs. "Just give them more staff. That's the solution to me."
"I'm sure there's more to that than what people are talking about on the surface, because I've never seen the VA go through without anything that's not 100 percent," veteran Vernon Shelton said.
Nelson said he has every indication that this new legislation will pass next week in Washington, and he said if the directors and executives are found guilty of mismanagement, they will lose their jobs.
Nelson will be in Jacksonville on Monday for the city's Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Wall. He is one of the speakers at the ceremony, which begins at 9 a.m.