Make the VA Accountable

sp-blogphoto-veteransaffairs-2500x1667.jpg

Make the VA Accountable

by Sean Parnell

After watching scandal after scandal unfold at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over the past several years, I have a single overriding question: When will Washington step up to address the problems of this dysfunctional department?

In fact, a viable solution is right now awaiting action in the U.S. Senate — the VA Accountability Act of 2015, a bipartisan bill passed by the House in July to hold VA employees accountable for poor performance. It’s time for the Senate to follow suit to put these much-needed reforms to work on behalf of veterans.

As an Afghanistan combat veteran and an advocate for veterans’ issues, I talk regularly with men and women who describe endless difficulties in dealing with the VA. Their complaints include long waits for services, a lack of communication from an unresponsive bureaucracy, delayed benefit payments and more.

As any military veteran will tell you, accountability is the key to high performance...Unfortunately, awareness of that principle has been lost at the VA

But even if you haven’t spoken with a veteran about the VA, you probably have seen the many media reports about the department’s failures.

Here in Pennsylvania alone, perhaps you’ve seen reports of a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA in 2011-2012 that left six veterans dead and sickened at least 16 others. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia VA is the target of an extensive inspector general probe centered on data manipulation, allegations of shredded applications and years-old claims applications that have never been opened.

The failures are well-documented, but what’s lacking is any sense of accountability for those failures. Despite the many reported and confirmed scandals at VA facilities nationwide, terminations of employees for cause are rare. At most, problem workers are transferred or, in some cases, allowed to retire with full benefits.

Here’s an example of how it works: In 2014, Americans were shocked to discover widespread fraud and data falsification at VA facilities nationwide, which led to veterans having their health care treatments delayed or denied.

Yet one year later, only three employees had been removed from their jobs as a result of the scandal. As The New York Times reported this spring, “The department punished a total of eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. One was fired, one retired in lieu of termination, one’s termination is pending, and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months.”

As any military veteran will tell you, accountability is the key to high performance — people must understand there will be rewards for success and consequences for failure. Unfortunately, awareness of that principle has been lost at the VA.

The VA Accountability Act would restore the basic leadership principle of accountability by giving the VA secretary the authority to remove an employee swiftly for misconduct or poor performance. It also includes enhanced protections for whistleblowers by creating disciplinary standards for any VA official who attempts retaliation against a VA employee who exposes wrongdoing or failure at the department. These are overdue reforms.

It’s time to put veterans back at the center of the VA mission

Of Pennsylvania’s two senators, only Sen. Pat Toomey has thus far declared his support for the VA Accountability Act. I hope Sen. Bob Casey, who’s been a reliable supporter of veterans in demanding VA action on the disability-benefits backlog, will soon follow suit.

I have never been a knee-jerk critic of the government, especially of the VA. In fact, I know personally how good the VA can be when it’s working as it’s supposed to work. When I returned from Afghanistan in 2007, wounded and with a disability rating, the professionals at the VA facility in Butler provided me quality care and support, for which I am deeply grateful.

But I also recognize that too many of today’s veterans don’t have the same experience — and by nearly every metric, the VA’s performance has deteriorated dramatically since 2008. That’s in spite of a significant increase in funding, with the VA’s budget nearly doubling since 2006 to $59 billion.

The VA has lost sight of its core mission, choosing to protect bureaucrats rather than supporting veterans. It’s time to put veterans back at the center of the VA mission.

To do that, the VA needs a culture change — and creating a culture of results starts with expecting greater accountability for all VA workers. The VA Accountability Act of 2015 would give the department its best chance at meaningful reform. The Senate should move swiftly to pass this vital legislation.

Evan West