A simple solution to VA’s many problems

More than 18 months after Americans were shocked and appalled by revelations of veterans dying while waiting to receive much--needed medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the VA’s problems are still far from fixed.

A steady stream of independent audits, media reports and congressional investigations prove this is the case. At the epicenter of the VA scandal in Phoenix, an Oct. 15 government report details how seven more veterans died after delays and lapses in care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. “Veterans still facing major medical delays at VA hospitals,” reads an Oct. 20 CNN headline. And after receiving information from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA Office of Inspector General recently made criminal referrals for two senior executives it says gamed the VA’s hiring system, enabling them to benefit from a total of more than $400,000 in taxpayer-funded relocation expenses.

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American veterans and taxpayers are rightly asking themselves, “When will the madness at the VA end?” Former Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin offered a blunt answer to that very question last year when speaking about the intentional manipulation of patient wait times by VA bureaucrats. “Once someone loses his job or gets criminally charged for doing this, it will no longer be a game. And that will be the shot heard around the system,” he said.

Apparently, VA leaders weren’t listening to Griffin. In the wake of the biggest scandal in VA history, which centered on patient wait-time manipulation, the department has successfully fired just three low-level employees for manipulating wait times. Not a single VA senior executive has been successfully fired for doing the same. It’s a statistic that’s almost impossible to believe, considering the fact that 110 VA medical facilities maintained secret lists to hide long waits for care.

Until the VA rids itself of those who engage in scandalous behavior, the department will always be mired in scandal. But unfortunately, indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving are prolonging the agency’s problems indefinitely. The VA’s highest-ranking benefits executive, Danny Pummill, perfectly described the issue during a Nov. 2 congressional hearing. VA is often stuck with problem employees because “the rules, the regulations, the protections are such that it’s almost impossible to do anything” to discipline most federal workers, Pummill said.

Pummill’s moment of candor was a drastic departure from the VA’s top leadership, who along with President Obama are actively opposing common-sense legislation the House of Representatives passed in July to tackle the VA’s accountability crisis head-on. The VA Accountability Act would simply give the VA secretary the authority to fire or demote any employee for poor performance or misconduct while protecting whistleblowers and limiting the amount of time employees can spend on paid administrative leave.

VA leaders — the same ones who have only fired three people for wait-time manipulation — have put forth a number of laughable arguments against this effort to increase accountability at VA. Among them is the canard that making it easier to fire failing VA employees will somehow make it harder for the agency to attract top talent. They have it backwards. Perhaps what’s really making it hard to attract top talent to VA is its notorious aversion to accountability.

As of mid-July, the department was struggling to fill nearly 41,000 open positions for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Faced with the grim prospect of working side by side with cold-hearted bureaucrats who chose to put veterans on secret waiting lists rather than providing them with the care they had earned, why wouldn’t medical professionals and administrators simply choose to work elsewhere?

A White House veto threat regarding the VA Accountability Act is even more ludicrous in its approach. It suggests that granting the VA the ability to quickly fire corrupt or incompetent employees is somehow unconstitutional. Let’s be honest. If you perform poorly in your job, you should be fired. To suggest that this basic tenet of common sense is somehow unconstitutional is completely absurd. The White House should be ashamed of itself for using such ridiculous logic in order to protect corrupt bureaucrats at the expense of veterans.

In order to field a winning team, the VA has to be prepared to cut its worst players. But time and again VA leaders and Obama seem unable and unwilling to do that. As a result, the department — forced to tolerate corruption, malfeasance and incompetence within its ranks — remains under the shadow of perpetual scandal.

The millions of American veterans who depend on the VA and the hundreds of thousands of VA employees who are dedicated professionals deserve better than this broken status quo. But until VA leaders and Obama make a commitment to supporting real accountability at the department, efforts to reform the VA are doomed to fail.

Miller has represented Florida’s 1st Congressional District since 2001. He is chairman of the Veterans’ ­Affairs Committee and serves on the Armed Services and the Intelligence ­committees.

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