American veterans are eagerly awaiting to hear President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE’s pick for next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). After years of scandal under Secretary Robert McDonald, a new leader can’t come soon enough.
Despite an increased VA budget, problems at VA facilities from coast-to-coast have worsened under Secretary McDonald since the wait list scandal broke in 2014. Wait times are still too long. Quality of care is still too low. And Secretary McDonald has spent his time and energy ignoring the problems there and misleading the public about everything from how many employees he’s fired to his own resume.
According to the VA’s own data, hundreds of thousands of veterans are still waiting long periods of time to see healthcare providers. The disability claims backlog hasn’t fared much better. By the end of 2015 over 70,000 disability claims remained backlogged within the Veterans Benefits Administration. That backlog has risen to around 92,000 today.
When it comes to the Phoenix VA, where the original wait list scandal broke, the situation has also worsened. Recent reports show that last year, over 200 veterans there died waiting for care – and that whistleblowers are still facing retaliation.
But instead of taking action to fix the problem, McDonald claimed that he had fired employees responsible for manipulating wait times. In 2015, he said that he’d fired 900 people at the VA, 60 specifically for manipulating wait times. The “Washington Post” awarded this “wildly inflated” claim four Pinocchios.
McDonald’s tendency to evade the truth has been reflected through the VA’s lack of transparency in the last few years. Recently, “USA Today” published an internal rating system that the Department had been intentionally keeping out of the hands of the public. Instead of apologizing, Secretary McDonald’s VA doubled down on the lack of transparency. “My concern is that veterans are going to see that their hospital is a ‘one’ in our star system, assume that’s bad quality and veterans that need care are not going to get care,” said VA Under Ssecretary for Health, David Shulkin.
By intentionally evading the truth, Secretary McDonald has been able to justify increasing bonuses for bad employees. In fiscal year 2014, the VA awarded $144 million in bonuses. The following fiscal year, under Secretary McDonald leadership, the VA awarded $177 million in bonuses — despite a budget shortfall, increasing wait times, and continued misconduct among senior staff.
Over half of the agency received a bonus, and senior VA executives received an average of $10,000 each. Among officials receiving bonuses: the former chief of staff at the ever-failing Phoenix VA and the executive director of VA’s Office of Construction who oversaw the Denver VA hospital construction fiasco.
Because Secretary McDonald regularly demonstrates a disconnect with reality, it should have come as no surprise when he compared veterans seeking care at the VA to going to Disneyland. As Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-WI) pointed out, veterans healthcare isn’t make-believe. Satisfaction with an “experience” — receiving medical care — is irrelevant if veterans in need never even get to the “experience” part of the equation (the actual doctor’s appointment). And healthcare for our nation’s heroes should never be compared to waiting for a ride at Disneyland.
It’s no wonder national leaders and veteran advocates like Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMissouri official asks court to suspend McCloskeys' law licenses GOP hopes spending traps derail Biden agenda A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate MORE (R-Miss.), and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Bipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops MORE (R-Texas), have called for McDonald’s resignation over the last few years. And now that the veterans community finally has a chance for a strong new leader under President-elect Trump, it’s disconcerting to watch some trying to gloss over the serious issues McDonald created at the VA.
American veterans don’t need more of the dysfunctional status quo. That’s why my organization, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), will continue fighting for meaningful reforms.
Most importantly, veterans deserve a choice over where and when to see a doctor. The Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act — draft legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersBiden administration rolls out clean car goals Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban Latina lawmakers discuss efforts to increase representation MORE (R-Wash.) seeks to go to the root of VA problems by allowing the VHA to be run like a high-performance healthcare organization, rather than as a government bureaucracy. This would improve both accountability and access, while allowing the system to right-size itself, which is projected to save money over the long term. Importantly, it would allow veterans increased choice in both private healthcare and VA providers.
Strong measures are also needed to hold the VA accountable. The Veterans First Accountability and Appeals Modernization Act – which passed the House with strong bipartisan support this year – would make it easier to fire bad VA employees at the senior level, protect whistleblowers who speak up, and would eliminate the backlog for disability claims. This bill would bring comprehensive accountability to the VA.
Under McDonald, the VA developed a track record of stonewalling Congressional oversight committees and not providing timely and accurate data. As a result, Congress, the media, and veterans’ groups get an incomplete picture of the Department’s effectiveness. Congress must push for more frequent and robust VA reporting requirements, but more importantly, the next VA Secretary must prioritize transparency.
It is of utmost importance that we honor the sacrifices of those who served, and take care of our brothers and sisters in uniform. And that starts at home, with the VA. We are optimistic that President-elect Trump will nominate a strong, tenacious leader with the willingness to face the truth, end the toxic culture at the VA, and finally give our nation’s heroes the care and respect they deserve.
Secretary Bob McDonald did not meet any of these requirements.
Mark Lucas is the Executive Director of Concerned Veterans for America.
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