No Excuse for VA’s Litany of Excuses
By Rep. Jeff Miller
Apparently, Department of Veterans Affairs officials haven’t learned much from the wait-time scandal that shook VA to its foundations and forced the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki.
At its core, VA’s nationwide delays-in-care debacle, in which VA employees manipulated veterans’ medical appointment data in order to hide long waits for care, was about bureaucrats who chose to cover up problems rather than own up to them.
Unfortunately, it seems the same sort of attitude that created the VA scandal is still alive and well within the department. That’s because — in a bizarre attempt to defend the department’s lack of accountability — VA leaders have adopted the puzzling strategy of downplaying and making excuses for instances of employee misconduct that every objective observer knows are abhorrent.
Case in point is a recent interview with USA Today in which VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson lamented media reports of VA’s wait-time scandal, which according to VA’s inspector general involved employees at 40 VA medical facilities around the country who manipulated veterans’ wait times in order to make long waits appear shorter.
Gibson suggested that some of the media coverage of VA’s wait-time issues was “crap” that created the false impression that veterans seeking VA care would encounter “some lazy, corrupt bureaucrat who doesn’t care a whit.” The comments are a remarkable rhetorical about-face for Gibson, because they’re in contrast to the Obama administration’s official position on the VA scandal.
In fact, in 2014, then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Gibson, himself, briefed President Obama that VA’s Veterans Health Administration’s “corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the department that are seriously impacting … the timeliness of health care.” VHA’s problems “are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels,” the briefing continued.
While there is no doubt that VA is home to many employees who are hard-working and dedicated to serving veterans, it’s also a place where — because of dysfunctional federal civil service rules that VA opposes changing for most employees — corrupt behavior such as wait-time manipulation is routinely tolerated. The fact that VA’s top leaders are now failing to acknowledge this only undermines their credibility as they seek to regain the trust of the veterans they are charged with serving.
Consider the facts.
In the Phoenix area alone, 293 veterans died waiting for VA care, according to VA’s inspector general. Separately, VA has linked the deaths of an additional 23 veterans across the country to delayed treatment. Those are facts — not crap — that may have had life-and-death implications for veterans who deserved much better. Yet incredibly, the department has successfully fired fewer than 10 people for wait-time-related issues.
Let that sink in. VA bureaucrats at 40 locations were manipulating data to hide long waits for care, 316 veterans died and yet VA has only successfully fired fewer than 10 people for these issues.
It’s obvious that until those who caused the VA scandal are removed from the department’s payroll, efforts to reform the department will never succeed. Unfortunately, under this administration, that’s unlikely to happen. That’s because instead of properly holding problem employees accountable, VA is all-too-often content to simply make excuses — often excruciatingly bad ones — for their misbehavior.
VA’s handling of wait-time manipulation problems in Central Texas underscores this point. There, the department’s inspector general found systemic data manipulation at VA facilities throughout Austin, San Antonio and Kerrville. More than 20 employees admitted to cooking the books, with some saying they feared being fired for refusing to manipulate data. Despite the report’s damning findings, VA has not disciplined a single employee for this behavior.
So what’s VA’s excuse after its Central Texas employees were caught red-handed falsifying government data? “We cannot explain the actions of the schedulers.” Of course they can’t. It’s hard to defend the indefensible.
VA’s excuse making goes beyond wait-time manipulation issues and applies to criminal acts as well. Take the case of the VA Caribbean Healthcare System in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which the average person could easily mistake for a federal jobs program for ex-cons rather than a VA medical facility.
At the San Juan hospital, a VA employee remains on the payroll despite her participation in an armed robbery, because according to VA, employees can be involved in stickups as long as they do so in their free time. At the same location, VA touts the “significant contributions” as a “subject matter expert” of a convicted sex offender who works as a human resource specialist. The facility has also put a felon who was sentenced to prison as part of a credit card scheme in charge of one of the hospital’s purchasing programs.
And people wonder why VA isn’t fixed yet.
Enough is enough. It’s time for VA leaders to level with veterans and the American people. The VA scandal was not overblown, it was real. Yes, it really is too hard to fire federal employees of all pay grades, and this sad fact is causing problems for veterans as well as thousands of VA employees who are actually dedicated to doing their jobs.
Veterans are depending on VA for solutions to the department’s most pressing problems. There is simply no excuse for VA’s litany of excuses regarding employees who can’t or won’t do their jobs. Read More
Today, Chairman Jeff Miller released the below statement regarding President Obama’s speech at the Disabled American Veterans national convention.
“During his speech today, President Obama threw around a lot of impressive sounding talking points. But like a lot of the information coming out of his Department of Veterans Affairs nowadays, the rhetoric doesn’t match reality. The president decried wait-time manipulation, even though VA leaders routinely tolerate such practices and, according to the Government Accountability Office, VA wait-time data is still misleading. He spoke of the need to protect whistleblowers, even though retaliation against VA employees who spotlight problems is still a major problem. And he tried to link VA’s poor performance with a lack of funding, even though VA’s budget has nearly quadrupled since 2001. The fact is, VA will never be fixed until we have a president who is dedicated to solving the department’s number one problem – its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability. Until then, VA’s issues will continue while veterans pay the price.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
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February 10, 2016 Read More
The VA’s Strained Relationship With The Truth
By Jeff Miller
The Denver Post
July 9, 2016
The Department of Veterans Affairs has had a lot to say in recent years regarding its failed attempts at building VA hospitals. But the key question is whether VA officials’ construction-related pronouncements are to be believed.
When it comes to the VA’s long and troubled history with major construction projects, American veterans and taxpayers deserve the truth, which it seems VA leaders are not providing.
During a recent visit to the site of the VA hospital in Aurora — the biggest construction failure in VA history — Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson claimed he had planned to fire one VA employee for bungling the project, which is more than $1 billion over budget. According to Gibson, however, the employee in question retired before the firing commenced.
It’s quite odd that this seemingly crucial detail is only surfacing now — nearly a year and a half after the project imploded in December 2014. So the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has asked the VA to provide the proof backing up Gibson’s claim, which — given the department’s history of misleading statements regarding a range of construction issues — is entirely warranted.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago when VA Secretary Bob McDonald, speaking at an April event in Colorado, attempted to take credit for reforms to the VA’s construction process in the wake of the Aurora construction debacle. In reality, the changes were actually forced on VA by Congress after years of claims from department officials that the project was on track and on budget.
But these sorts of bizarre claims are par for the course at the VA, such as when, in the aftermath of the Aurora project’s implosion, Gibson called VA’s construction management process “pretty good.” It was one of the most out-of-touch statements from any VA leader in recent memory, but it was one of many.
For instance, VA officials have often touted the “lessons learned” from construction of the department’s embattled facility in Orlando, Fla., as key to avoiding similar problems with other projects. “The lessons learned from Orlando and past major construction projects are guiding us in our management of the Denver and New Orleans replacement hospitals,” former VA Construction Chief Glenn Haggstrom said in May of 2013.
But, contrary to Haggstrom’s claim, the only thing VA appears to have learned from Orlando is how to generate hundreds of millions in cost overruns at VA hospitals in Aurora and New Orleans, a facility whose $1 billion-plus cost makes it the second-most expensive hospital in VA history.
The Orlando facility was originally slated to cost around $276 million, but the hospital’s price tag had grown to roughly $665 million when it opened in May of 2015. To make matters worse, the VA is still learning painful lessons in Orlando its leaders never told the public about.
Last year, just months after the hospital had opened, the VA quietly agreed to a series of settlement payments totaling nearly $213 million to the contractor it had hired to build the facility — the same contractor it had previously blamed for many of the project’s problems. Instead of telling Congress and the public about the payments, however, the VA tried to keep them a secret. And if not for a New York Daily News investigation, they would have stayed that way. The payments brought the Orlando facility’s price tag, which VA officials had led the public to believe was around $665 million, to a whopping $878 million.
And so it goes at the VA, where dishonesty among employees is routinely tolerated, and veterans and taxpayers are forced to deal with the consequences.
Whether it’s construction, patient wait-times, health care enrollment and eligibility or any number of other areas, the VA has a long history of misleading the public regarding its mismanagement of important programs. The only way to fix these problems once and for all is for department leaders to be honest about the challenges the VA faces and what is needed to overcome them.
But how can we expect that to happen when the VA’s leaders have such a strained relationship with the truth?
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Fla., is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
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Today, Chairman Jeff Miller released the below statement regarding the latest veteran suicide data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Any time a person who fought to defend America dies by their own hand, it’s a tragedy. And these numbers are heartbreaking proof that we have a long way to go in order to end this troubling trend. Last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which is helping to increase the availability and efficacy of VA’s suicide prevention and mental health services. The law is a step in the right direction, but sustained progress will require a comprehensive approach to help ensure our most at-risk veterans have not only the care they need but also a job, a purpose and a system of support in place to help carry them through their struggles. Therefore, we as a nation must do more to encourage veterans in need to seek treatment and ask for help. And until we stop the epidemic of veteran suicides in this country, there will always be more work to do.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Read More
Yesterday, Chairman Jeff Miller introduced H.R. 5620, the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016. The bill would strengthen protections for whistleblowers and help fix the Department of Veterans Affairs’ biggest problem – its pervasive lack of accountability for misbehaving employees. Additionally, the bill would reform the department’s disability benefits appeals process – a top priority for VA leaders and many veterans service organizations. Specifically, the bill would:
Shorten the firing/demotion/appeals process for rank-and-file VA employees from more than a year on average to no more than 77 days
Remove entirely the Merit Systems Protection Board from the firing/demotion/appeals process for VA senior executives
Provide VA whistleblowers with a means to solve problems at the lowest level possible, while offering them protection from reprisals and mandating strict accountability for those who reprise against them
Give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses from misbehaving employees
Give the VA secretary the authority to reduce the pensions of senior executives convicted of felonies that influenced their job performance
Reform the department’s broken disability benefits appeals process
“The biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform is the department’s pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels. Until this problem is fixed once and for all, long-term efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail. For too long, union bosses, administration officials and their enablers have used every trick in the book to help VA bureaucrats who can’t or won’t do their jobs remain firmly entrenched in the agency’s bureaucracy. The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 gets rid of these loopholes, which have been unfairly forcing veterans and the many good VA workers to deal with deadwood employees for years. Union bosses and defenders of the broken status quo will oppose this bill, and that is exactly why it must become law.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Read the bill here. Read More
Chairman Jeff Miller today released the below statement regarding the Commission on Care’s final report on the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.
“While the Commission on Care’s nearly 300-page report will take time to completely review and digest, the document makes it abundantly clear that the problems plaguing Department of Veterans Affairs medical care are severe. Fixing them will require dramatic changes in how VA does business, to include expanding partnerships with community providers in order to give veterans more health care choices. I thank the commissioners for their work on this important project, and I look forward to examining this report in detail at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing in September.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs