by Washington Examiner · March 11, 2017
With most Americans’ minds on healthcare reform this week, the House of Representatives will take a first step toward fulfilling President Trump’s campaign promises to veterans.
Throughout President Obama’s second term, scandals consumed the Department of Veterans Affairs. They evinced an uncaring, self-centered bureaucracy that serves its own needs rather than those of the veterans with whose care it is charged.
The House is expected to pass the VA Accountability First Act, which would dramatically speed up the firing and punishing of bureaucrats who engage in abuses. Now that Veterans administration staff at all levels have been caught lying, cheating, and gaming the system to cheat their way to undeserved bonus pay or to avoid accountability, Senate Democrats owe it to veterans to get this bill to Trump’s desk with a bipartisan stamp of approval.
Bureaucrats have been caught retaliating against whistleblowers, resisting and spying on congressional investigators, covering up infectious outbreaks, stealing money, wrongly delaying and denying veterans’ applications for benefits, and maliciously manipulating the electronic systems that were put in place to hold them accountable.
In some cases, VA physicians have been credibly accused of performing unnecessary procedures; in others, of purging unexamined results of diagnostic medical tests to reduce the backlog. And as bad as all that sounds, it really only scratches the surface of an agency where ethics and accountability are utterly absent.
After four years of almost continuous scandal, it is clear is that practically no one gets fired from this agency, no matter how grave their offense or their neglect of its mission.
Those who come forward and bring these scandals to light seldom go unpunished by their colleagues and supervisors. But wrongdoers get off scot-free. The scandal that started it all, by which agency employees manipulated a computer system to make it appear they were achieving goals for wait times, provides an illustration. Despite the involvement of thousands of VA employees at dozens of different medical facilities, only nine people had been fired for that scandal as of last fall. Two others resigned or retired.
The biggest problem has been the lack of will on the part of the agency’s leadership. Obama showed no leadership, threatening to veto this very bill in 2015. Former VA Secretary Robert McDonald, whom Obama brought in to fix the department’s problems, instead became the bureaucracy’s biggest defender. After he was confirmed, he consistently downplayed the agency’s problems instead of fixing them. He also deliberately misled the public by suggesting that hundreds of employees were being held accountable for their misdeeds when no such thing was taking place.
Veterans’ groups hope Trump and his VA new secretary, David Shulkin, will fix all this. Congress can help by passing the bill.
The process of firing even the worst employees in the federal government is notoriously difficult and lengthy. The VA Accountability First Act will compress the process from more than a year to a maximum of 60 days in an agency where heads should roll.
The VA secretary would also have the power to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses wrongly paid out, and to reduce the pensions of workers who commit felonies on the job.
There is no reason this bill shouldn’t pass both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support.
Veterans and their loved ones would do well to watch carefully for any lawmaker who tries to weaken or defeat this bill at the behest of federal employee unions, and to punish those politicians in the next election.