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By Steve Kelman

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Media life and real life

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Last week on CNN, I saw a story about a special late-night House hearing that had been held the evening before to grill Veterans Affairs Department managers about the Inspector General report on wait list problems at the VA Phoenix (and perhaps other) hospitals. Members were unable to contain anger and emotion. The gruesome drumbeat that Secretary Shinseki's "head" would have to "roll" -- which culminated in his May 30 resignation -- grew louder.

I worked at home that morning, because I had on my calendar to attend the citizenship ceremony in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for the Peruvian-born wife (of four years) of a former student of mine at the Kennedy School with whom I've remained friends.

To get to Faneuil Hall, I needed to take my commuter rail train, run by the regional public transportation system, all the way into the last stop, North Station, rather than getting off in Cambridge as I usually do. That was fortuitous, because I was going to need to stop at the lost and found at North Station to check if by any chance the briefcase I had left on a bench at the Cambridge station the night before was there. I had been carrying both my gym bag (which I often do) and a big bag of bagels I had just bought (which I seldom do) as well as my briefcase, and almost at my stop, I noticed there was no briefcase next to me at my seat. (If faithful readers recall earlier blogs about lost items, the answer is, "Yes, I am a very absent-minded professor.")

The conductor helped me look around the train (I had changed seats after getting on), and then, shortly after I was to get off, I realized perhaps I had left the briefcase at the Cambridge station. The conductor thought for a second and then said, "You know, I think I saw a bag on the bench in Cambridge."

Was he going back to Boston on the same train once it had reached its destination, I quickly asked him? Yes, he replied. The train was about to leave my stop, but he quickly said: "Let me check on the bench when I come back to Cambridge. If I find it, I will deliver it to the lost and found at North Station."

No time to get a name or number.

So when I arrived the next morning at North Station, I was slightly nervous. But sure enough, the bag was in the lost and found.

I asked the woman at lost and found whether the conductor had left a name, and told her the train I had been on. He had not. By coincidence, though, another conductor interrupted and said he worked that same train. I gave him a description of the man, my business card, and a request for him to contact me. I would like to invite him for lunch or something at the Harvard Faculty Club.

Then I went to the citizenship ceremony, where my friend's wife and 277 other new Americans were naturalized. (Coincidentally, the conductor who helped me, judging by his accent, was an African immigrant.) As it happens, the former student, Ned Shamon, works for the Veterans Health Administration on hospital cost accounting and management improvement. I asked him (and his boss, who was also there) if people were talking much about the scandal, and whether it was affecting their jobs.

"No, not really," Ned answered. "We just need to go about our work and do everything we can to improve the system, just like we were doing before." His boss told me something about the eight different priority groups for veterans being served at VA hospitals, down to priority 8 (the classification he was in), which were veterans without any injury either service or non-service related, who could get free care at VA hospitals if there was space for them. Many, he said, used the hospitals just to get the very inexpensive prescription medications veterans can get. It sounded like the situation was slightly more complicated than the media accounts suggest.

I tell these stories of media life and real life not to bash the media. Their watchdog role is invaluable, and it is good they are on the lookout for misdeeds and shortcomings. I agree with those who say that media coverage is often unbalanced -- all the evidence of areas where the veterans hospital system is considered a model for healthcare, ahead of many private hospitals, gets completely forgotten in the white heat of scandal and the hunt for retribution -- but that's just the way things are, and not much can be done about it.

But my two experiences last week reminded me that we need to balance the media's laser focus on scandal and misdeed with the experiences of real life. A public servant again went out of his way to help a customer in need. Ned and his colleagues at the Veterans Health Administration in Bedford, Mass., are trying to do a good job helping veterans. As we watch media life, let's also remember real life.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 02, 2014 at 9:37 AM

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 9, 2014 Mel Ostrow

Again, the good professor resorts to behavior of people in the periphery of their intellectual and professional being. As if good works there would make up for poor performance for pay from customers was a secondary activity. We should not care whether civil servants return lost wallets or react badly to the often erroneous press. Let us keep our minds on the balls, eh? Tennis anyone?

Fri, Jun 6, 2014 Al

These problems pre-date and will post-date Gen Shinseki. I'm not anti-Federal employee, I used to be one, but a report hit the news that 18 vets in Phoenix died on a waiting list. My grandfather passed away as a result of his "care" at the VA. It's not getting better- time to cut bait and give any veteran on a waiting list the option to get care privately, reimbursed by the Federal government. Should have been working toward that for a number of Presidents now.

Wed, Jun 4, 2014

This article is nothing more than an antidotal informational story designed to make people feel good using information that doesn't prove a thing or even address the root of the issue, which is not enough time is spent on investigating stories as well as not being bias towards reporting the entire story. As for "not much can be done about it", false, plenty can be done about it. Reporters can investigate stories and confirm facts that they are reporting instead of relying on alleged facts that are presented in other stories, most simply choose not to do so. The reason why many stories are ubiquitous on the Internet is because the story is investigated once and reported a zillions times by other so called reporters. Compounding the problem is the lack of investigative skills by the reporter or whether or not they care enough to even use those skills. Why, time is money and training takes time. Today, individuals want their news like they want their dinner, which is fast and cheap. Mickey D's in a nutshell. Finally, if no one in the VA is talking about any of the scandals, then the individuals in the VA either work in a bubble or they don't act like other normal human beings. Not talking about a scandal the magnitude of which has caused the head of your organization to resign is tantamount to being an accomplice (the ole whatcha talk'n about Lewis) to the scandal or acknowledging that what's going on is no big deal. As for the VA being a model for healthcare, that's simply not true and examples are too many to list. The VA is outstanding at providing care for some veterans that have injuries that are not seen often in the general population. The VA research hospitals are the hospitals that provide cutting edge, never seen before, solutions to serious healthcare problems and they do this extremely well. Go beyond that care and into normal everyday care and the VA quickly becomes subpar, very fast I might add.

Wed, Jun 4, 2014 Mike Sade

As usual, Dr. Kelman is spot on. I have worked with too many amazing individuals in public service that go above and beyond to serve and never get the public recognition they deserve. I've had my share of public recognition, never sought it, and never expected it. I appreciated the recognition I was given however there is nothing wrong in doing your job and not expecting recognition above your paycheck. It is up to management and leadership to find ways to give those a pat on the back. Thanks Dr. Kelman for recognizing this individual.

Tue, Jun 3, 2014 Mike P. Balt/DC

Amen Steve!!! Thank you for the perspective. I was sitting in the audience of a conference of homeless vet service providers during Shinseki's last public speech as VA Administrator thinking here is another great man and public servant politically crucified for no real purpose other than to make a point of misguided accountability. Your article points out that many good public servants go about their duties without fanfare or notice and the services they provide are invaluable!!! In has been repeated so much that it is trite, but the good news about those who selfishly serve is rarely shared in our media. No doubt that my life has been greatly enhanced in both small and grand ways by the cadre of public officials and employees doing their job to the best of their abilities - day in and day out. I can't imagine what life would be without these committed "soldiers". Cheers!

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