Has the 'swamp' at Veterans Affairs drained out on the Pacific Islands?
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Has the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grown so big that it can shield employees from accountability?

Worried Hawaii veterans would like to know.

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The list of VA scandals stretches from the East Coast all the way to the Pacific. And evidence of poor practices continues to roll in. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen:

 

In response to the ongoing problems, President Trump recently created the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, in an attempt to guarantee better care for veterans, protect whistleblowers, and achieve greater accountability for VA operations nationwide.  

But while veterans have heard lots of promises about cleaning up the VA, the appointment of Jennifer Gutowski as the new director for VA Pacific Islands Health Care System has many asking: “Where’s the accountability?”

The Pacific Islands position went unfilled for almost a year, going through a rotation of temporary directors before Jennifer Gutowski was tapped as the permanent director in March. With 18 years in the VA system, Gutowski certainly doesn’t lack experience. But her record suggests that she’s part of the problem within the VA system, not the solution.

Gutowski comes to Hawaii from the troubled Arizona VA system, where she was an associate director, and later acting director, of the Southern Arizona VA. It was during her tenure there that reports of long wait times – and associated patient deaths – at VA hospitals in her district prompted a full-scale investigation of misconduct at VA facilities nationwide.

One whistleblower in the resulting scandal specifically mentioned Gutowski as an example of a supervisor who shouldn’t escape blame for unethical scheduling practices and falsifying wait times. Former VA administrator Pat McCoy told KGUN News that she repeatedly spoke to management about the manipulation of patient data, but her concerns were dismissed or downplayed.

McCoy said of Gutowski, “She is the associate director. She's as responsible as (the director) is. This whole pentad is responsible for what went on with this data. They’re all responsible. They all knew about it. The chiefs of staff knew about it. I know they did. I told them.”

When asked by KGUN if she knew about the unethical practices, Gutowski was evasive. She said that she was hopeful the VA would be able to prevent problems in the future.

Gutowski has been positive about the changes in transparency and accountability within the VA since the wait-times scandal erupted, but some Hawaii veterans still aren’t happy with her appointment, suggesting it was a way to move a “problem employee” out of the public eye.

Bill Flynn, chaplain of Kona’s VFW Post 12122, told West Hawaii Today, “They were probably looking for someplace nice and far away to dump her. She was part of the problem (in Arizona). Why is she still working for the VA at all? That’s the main issue. She won’t make it better. All she’ll do is make it worse.”

Even assuming Gutowski bears no responsibility for the VA problems in Arizona, veterans are worried about what her background says about the VA system in general. If a supervisor in a scandal-plagued region can be promoted, then are they really doing enough to keep their promises to clean up the mess?

Or is Gutowski symbolic of a system where managers can escape accountability by passing blame down to problem employees …  or up to political appointees?

For Hawaii veterans, Gutowski’s association with the Arizona scandal is alarming, regardless of how much she knew about it. As Major Dale Wilson (Ret.) told West Hawaii Today, the fact that Gutowski was part of the management in Arizona makes veterans in Hawaii doubt she, “will provide the level of competent leadership we so badly need here.”

For her part, Gutowski has promised that things are changing. She has said that she will hold herself and her staff to high levels of transparency and integrity. And she has made the right noises about listening to the concerns of Hawaii’s veterans. 

But no one can blame veterans for their skepticism about this appointment. What they need is an indication that things have changed radically at the VA and that the individuals responsible for the scandals—from the lowliest employees to the highest officials—are being held accountable. When the best thing you can say is that maybe Hawaii’s new VA Director was just clueless about a massive employee scandal, you’re still a long way away from providing the kind of leadership vets deserve.

Malia Blom Hill, is policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (@GrassrootHawaii), a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.