New beginning for the VA

When will we get good news out of the Department of Veterans Affairs? Last month we learned as many as 307,000 veterans died before their applications for health care were completed, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general. This is only the latest in a long line of sad discoveries over the last year. 

When you dig a little deeper, each of these stories has self-serving VA employees cheating the system or hiding embarrassing facts from the public. Some of those 300,000 veterans went unheard of until now because a select few VA employees were hiding unprocessed documents in their desks. That’s reminiscent of the secret wait-list scandal first discovered in Phoenix last year. 

{mosads}The lesson is clear: Congress must give the VA the power to find and deal with the employees who betray veterans’ trust. Supporting the VA Accountability Act is the first step in that direction. This bill, introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in the House and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the Senate, would create new incentives for VA employees to uphold their mission and give veterans the reliable service and care they earned. 

A federal agency is only as good as the people who work in it. VA employees can be separated into two categories. The first category consists of poorly performing, unethical individuals who put themselves first—and veterans last. The second is made up of highly motivated, disciplined, and conscientious professionals. To be clear: the vast majority of VA employees are in this second category. 

But the good work of the many can too often be ruined by the failures of a select few. My home state of Minnesota is a case in point. At Minnesota VA facilities, employee satisfaction ranks among the lowest in the nation. VA probes found that senior management was “disrespectful” and overburdened staff with casework, but employees did not speak up. They were afraid of reprisal and punishment for doing so. 

This corrosive culture led to thousands of appointments for VA health care having excessive wait times longer than a month. 

Minnesota is no outlier. According to a VA-commissioned study, this fear exists across at VA clinics and offices across the nation. “At almost every facility visited,” the study notes, “at least one leader interviewed mentioned that risk aversion and a reluctance to ‘speak up’ were a significant issue.” It’s this fear of speaking up, propagated by self-serving staff and a bureaucracy protecting them, that is destroying the agency. 

Sometimes the incentive to do the right thing is more powerful than the VA’s complacency. In nearly every crisis and scandal the agency has endured these last few years, there have been lone individuals voicing concerns. Even in Phoenix, where 40 veterans died because of excessive wait times for health care, there was a whistleblower who tried to warn that lives were in danger. Listening to these voices could’ve made a difference and saved veterans’ lives. 

But they were ignored, at best. Instead, in all of these cases, it was the whistleblowers who were disciplined rather than those committing wrongdoing. This isn’t just a backwards way of doing things—it’s wrong. 

The VA needs to be able to attract dedicated and talented professionals who are willing to give their all to help a veteran. With the VA as it is today, there’s no reason why such a person should want to work at this failing federal agency. 

It’s high time we start heeding and respecting those who want to serve and protect veterans. It’s also time we stop protecting those who are only interested in preserving their reputation and benefits. 

The VA Accountability Act (H.R. 1994, S. 1082) gives us the means of accomplishing both of these goals. This legislation streamlines the disciplinary process within the agency, making it easier to replace unmotivated or criminally negligent employees. Whereas bureaucracy currently makes such decisions drag on, this bill makes discipline timely and effective, so that it can make a real difference. This is sorely needed: Only three employees were fired in the wake of last year’s horrific wait-list scandal. 

The act also gives whistleblowers and good VA employees some of the strongest employee protections possible. Any VA employee suspected of retaliating against or obstructing the work of a whistleblower would be punished accordingly. 

If Congress finds the will to pass it, the VA Accountability Act will help create a VA culture where nothing less than 100 percent honesty and integrity is acceptable. With a hearing scheduled in the House Veterans Affairs Committee this Wednesday, we’re closer than ever to achieving this goal. It’s imperative that Congress continues to take proactive action to pass this bill and restore accountability to the VA. Our nation’s veterans deserve nothing less.

Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.

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