VA accountability falling back instead of marching forward

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A recent story in the Albuquerque Journal reported that one of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) managers that was implicated in a VA Office of the Inspector General report as “actively encouraging schedulers to ‘misreport’ veteran appointment wait times” had been promoted to the head position at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, despite being under investigation. 

This stunning revelation is only the most recent instance of VA’s failure to hold its employees responsible for their misdeeds and exemplifies the dire need for improved accountability for VA employees.

{mosads}Despite this, the Department of Justice recently announced that it will no longer defend the increased accountability measures contained in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was signed into law following the 2014 VA scandal, due to alleged constitutionality concerns. This announcement, in turn, caused VA Secretary Bob McDonald to announce that he would no longer attempt to utilize the firing authority contained in that law — authority which is only effective if used.

This means that VA accountability has, for all intents and purposes, been rolled back to pre-2014 levels — back, in other words, to the lack of accountability that led to the scandal to begin with. This has even led to speculation that Sharon Helman, the former head of the Phoenix VA system at the time of the 2014 scandal, could actually be reinstated to her old job.  

Clearly, this is a broken system.

Unfortunately, powerful special interests have opposed increased VA accountability, with public-sector unions refusing to accept any but the most minimum accountability measures, such as the weak measures offered by the Veterans First Act, despite the egregious and well-documented abuses by VA employees for which veterans ultimately pay the price.

Last week, however, House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) introduced, along with Marco Rubio in the Senate, a new bill entitled the “VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016,” that seeks to improve accountability at VA.

With other measures stalled in the Senate, including the House-approved VA Accountability Act of 2015 and the problematic Veterans First Act, this bill offers increased accountability while attempting to rectify some of the issues that have so far undermined the other attempts at increasing accountability for VA employees.

Miller’s bill would reinstate the accountability undermined by the Justice Department’s decision, and would go even further: it expedites the removal of problem employees, increases the power of the VA Secretary to remove problem employees, and disallows bonuses for senior executives for the next five years, while at the same time providing unprecedented protections for whistleblowers, and addressing some of the constitutional concerns that have been raised by opponents of the VA Accountability Act of 2016.

To achieve the requisite accountability, two things are necessary. First, Congress must act, expanding the ability of the Secretary to remove problem employees and reducing bureaucratic red tape, allowing employees who commit criminal acts or who fail in their duties to be removed as quickly as possible.

Astonishingly, the currently process can take a year or more. Second, the VA Secretary, and VA leadership, must be serious about holding VA employees accountable. No expansion of removal authority by congressional action will have any effect if it is not utilized by those who are given that authority.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Department of Justice and Secretary McDonald show that we are moving backward on VA accountability at a time when increased VA accountability has never been more needed. Rep. Miller’s and Sen. Rubio’s bills represent a blueprint for the kind of policies that could stem the tide.

But until Congress and VA leadership take seriously the need for an accountable VA that serves the needs of veterans over the demands of special interests, little will change.  

Rieley is an Outreach and Research Analyst at Concerned Veterans for America. He served as an infantryman in the Maryland Army National Guard’s 175th Infantry Regiment and 158th Cavalry Regiment for nine years, which included a tour in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a tour in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, attaining the rank of Sergeant.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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