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
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“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
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H.R. 4590, the Fiscal Year 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs Seismic Safety and Construction Authorization Act, as amended, would authorize a number of major medical facility construction projects to improve safety issues at facilities that are at high-risk for earthquakes. It would also require a greater accounting of VA construction expenditures.
H.R. 3936, the VET Act, as amended, would authorize a three-year pilot program for Veteran Engagement Teams, which would allow VA employees to meet one-on-one with veterans to help facilitate the claims process for veterans benefits.
These bills now await consideration by the Senate. Following House passage of the bills, Chairman Miller released the below statement.
“I applaud the House’s actions today to improve VA’s claims processing efforts and add additional transparency to the department’s construction operations. These bills would help improve veterans’ experiences while encouraging a more functional and efficient VA, and I urge the Senate to consider them in short order.” - Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Read More