Veterans Affairs tries to move forward

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is moving on from one of the most serious scandals in its history.

On the eve of Veterans Day, the agency announced a reorganization intended to improve customer service to the hundreds of thousands of veterans who depend on VA hospitals and clinics for healthcare.

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The realignment follows internal reports showed that veterans waited months to see a VA doctor, and that VA employees covered up the long waits. The reports triggered a political scandal that raised questions about the Obama administration’s competency and led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.

Months later, the story has faded and a new official, former Proctor & Gamble executive Robert McDonald, is in charge of restoring order at the agency.

McDonald announced the reorganization, which focuses on responding more quickly to VA patients. Last week, he told reporters that the average wait time for new primary care patients had decreased from 51 days in May to 42 days as of Oct. 1.

While still shy of the VA’s 30-day goal, the reduction marks “significant progress,” McDonald said.

To critics of the VA, the restructuring and shortened wait times represent progress. But they are by no means satisfied.

Republican lawmakers and some organizations representing veterans are particularly critical of McDonald. They say he has not done enough to fire VA employees who contributed to a culture of corruption and the underserving of veterans.

“We understand that Secretary McDonald wants to make sure VA follows proper legal procedure in the firing of any employees, and that he doesn’t want such actions thrown out on appeal,” Verna Jones, executive director of The American Legion, said in a statement.

Still, she said her organization is “quite disappointed that only one senior VA executive has been fired thus far, and that at least two others remain on paid administrative leave at taxpayers’ expense.”

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) remains infuriated that McDonald hasn’t fired Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA hospital that became ground zero in the scandal.

In May, a VA inspector general examination of the Phoenix hospital found that patients had waited an average of 115 days for an initial doctor’s appointment, while official data claimed the wait time was only 24 days. The investigation also showed 1,700 veterans had been intentionally kept off official patient rolls.

The inspector general’s office later identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but said officials could not “conclusively assert” that the deaths were caused by the delays. This conclusion has been questioned by some lawmakers, including Miller.

“If VA has the evidence needed to fire Sharon Helman, which it says it does, it should fire her,” Miller said in a statement last week. “Keeping Helman and other Phoenix executives on the payroll when the department wants to fire them is nothing more than a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

On Monday he said reorganizing the VA is fine, but that the agency must rid itself of bad employees to truly improve itself, and to provide accountability.

“No one doubts that reforming VA is a tough job. But getting rid of failed executives should be the easiest part — not the most difficult,” Miller said.

McDonald has argued that his hands are tied in moving more quickly to fire employees given laws protecting civil servants, even with a new law approved over the summer that gives him additional leeway to dismiss executives and managers, pending an appeals process.

“These laws are very clear, and I'm skeptical whether members of Congress don't understand the law,” he told reporters last week.

Still, he said that at least 35 employees face penalties — including firing — in coming days and more than 1,000 others could meet the same fate.

Congress responded to the VA scandal with legislation approved in near-unanimous votes that provided $10 billion for veterans to seek medical care at non-VA providers if they live more than 40 miles from an agency facility, or if they do not get a doctor’s appointment within 30 days.

It devoted another $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical staff. McDonald says the VA needs to hire about 28,000 healthcare professionals to meet its patient demand.

Veteran “choice cards” started going out last week to around 300,000 vets who live outside the 40-mile radius stipulated by the bill. Another 370,000 cards will be sent out next week to veterans who have waited longer than 30 days to see a doctor.

McDonald’s nomination received bipartisan praise, and some groups representing veterans give him good marks so far on the job.

McDonald is “doing a good job” but “obviously it’s not going to happen overnight, transforming the organization,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Washington, D.C., office.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff said that after “years of failure, missed deadlines and disappointment at VA, our veterans will only celebrate when we see results.”

“The path back to public trust will be long and hard. But we still believe we can get there and are standing by to help,” he added.