VA reform: It's vets versus bureaucrats

Here’s a true story about how things work at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): In March 2013, Dr. Steve Coughlin, a former VA epidemiologist, testified to Congress about how the VA had failed to follow up with veterans who had reported suicidal thoughts, and that many of those vets later took their own lives. 

As repayment for his efforts to draw attention to the needs of veterans and their families, Coughlin reported that he was subjected to retaliation and harassment from his superiors at VA, which culminated in his leaving the department in 2012. Such is the fate, all too often, of truth-telling whistleblowers. 

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Here’s the bitter punch line: a few weeks ago, a VA internal investigation found that Coughlin’s charges, including the retaliation from other VA employees, were true. Coughlin, who has since found a position outside of the federal government, only learned of his vindication when the media contacted him for comment on the investigation, the results of which had been quietly issued to Congress. 

It’s a saddening and infuriating tale: veterans and their families suffered needlessly; an honest and conscientious researcher was hounded from government service by other government employees; and to date, no one has been held accountable. 

What’s even more troubling is that this shabby performance is par for the course at the nation’s second largest federal department. Poor service to veterans, which has led to massive backlogs for benefits and medical appointments and a rash of preventable deaths, has become VA’s calling card. 

It is now beyond question that VA is broken and in desperate need of fixing, which is why members of Congress are developing and presenting reform proposals. 

One of these proposals is the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in the House and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the Senate. That bill would empower the VA secretary to fire senior VA executives who fail to perform; it’s a common sense proposal endorsed by numerous veterans’ organizations, including my group, Concerned Veterans for America, as well as The American Legion, AMVETS, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. 

Naturally, VA has criticized the Miller-Rubio bill. That’s to be expected, as it’s exceedingly rare that any bureaucracy would demand more accountability for itself. But what’s surprising is that there are those in Washington, including at the Washington Post, who now defend the VA’s dysfunctional status quo as an issue of “employee rights.” 

In a February 20 column, the Post’s Joe Davidson wrote critically of the VA Management Accountability Act, arguing that the bill would “eliminate key employment protections” and undermine existing civil service rules. 

Davidson frames the issue as a matter of “employee rights,” but the “rights” he is defending are ill defined. Is he defending the “right” of a poor performing VA executive to continue failing at his job, at great cost to veterans, their families and the taxpayers? 

Is it a defense of the “right” of VA employees to crudely retaliate against a whistle-blower who goes public about the performance and ethical issues that plague the department? Is it a defense of the “right” to grant and accept extravagant bonuses for employees when VA’s performance is falling off a cliff? 

It takes a rather expansive and perverse understanding of “employee rights” to oppose Congressional efforts to demand accountability and improved results from a department that has become mired in self-dealing and self-protection—to the profound detriment of its mission of service to military veterans. 

Davidson suggests the Miller-Rubio bill constitutes an attack on the civil service and would “undermine its legitimacy government-wide.” But the simple fact is that no one has done more to undermine the legitimacy of the civil service at VA than VA’s own leadership, who have failed to get results and failed to hold executives responsible for that failure. 

My intent is not to single out Davidson, as there are no doubt others in Washington who misguidedly believe that calls for reform and accountability at the failing VA are an unjust attack on dedicated public servants. In fact, it’s just the opposite—bringing greater accountability to the failing organization will bolster the best employees, while sending a clear signal to poor performers that results matter. In fact, these reforms will instead attract reform-minded leaders to VA, where they are desperately needed. 

But the key question at this point is not about employee rights, and it’s not about “Congress versus federal workers.” It’s about which side do you choose: bureaucrats who can't be fired or veterans who are underserved? I stand with my brothers and sisters who have served in uniform and fought on behalf of our nation. They deserve better than what they’ve gotten from VA. 

Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and contributor at Fox News Channel. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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