- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday that the Department of Veterans Affair needs to fire not just the top managers but also the lower-level employees involved in blocking treatment of veterans, as he laid out his own plans to clean up an agency that has become a public symbol of Obama administration dysfunction.

The Republican presidential candidate said the VA’s ineptitude touches him personally, as he introduced his older brother, Army vet Mario Rubio, on the campaign trail in Iowa.

Mario Rubio served in special forces from 1968 to 1971 and had his teeth knocked in during a training mishap. He still needs dental work, but the VA is resisting his claim and is putting him through a bureaucratic nightmare, the Florida senator said.

Marco Rubio said that if he wins the White House, he will demand VA officials be more transparent in their work, will give more veterans the choice of going to private doctors and will impose accountability on the agency by making it easier to fire poor-performing employees.

“Those who are not doing a good job will be fired when I’m president,” Mr. Rubio said.

The VA has become an unlikely issue on the campaign trail this year, after the agency faced embarrassing reports last year that many of its facilities maintained secret waiting lists, denying veterans the timely care they need while department executives collected bonuses for appearing to manage their caseloads.

SEE ALSO: Sloan Gibson lashes out during VA committee hearing

In Phoenix, a whistleblower said some 40 veterans died while stuck on the waiting lists.

More recently, the VA has faced criticism for failing to fire two senior executives who investigators concluded orchestrated their own transfers to new jobs, collecting nearly $400,000 in relocation bonuses between them.

Mr. Rubio cited them as chief examples of people who should be fired, but said the housecleaning needs to go deeper.

The VA has bristled at those kinds of complaints.

Testifying to Congress on Wednesday, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said firing people is a bad way to manage performance.

“You can’t fire your way to excellence,” Mr. Gibson said.

SEE ALSO: Nearly two-thirds of GOP voters back Donald Trump’s Muslim ban

On Thursday, some congressional Democrats praised Mr. Rubio and other candidates for talking about veterans during the campaign — though they said focusing on firing employees is a distraction.

“I strongly agree the VA must be held more accountable for the quality of care and experience they are providing veterans, but focusing exclusively on firing VA employees is not an effective or sustainable approach,” said Rep. Mark Takano of California. “We should be talking more about recruiting and retaining the best talent, and less about policies that potentially violate the rights of VA employees, a third of whom are veterans themselves.”

Concerned Veterans for America shot back against critics of Mr. Rubio’s plans, arguing that those who don’t support stricter accountability for the VA and more choices for veterans “are fighting to preserve a system that has proven unable to properly serve hundreds of thousands of our nation’s veterans.”

The VA has become a dividing line between Democrats and Republicans in the presidential election.

Mr. Rubio said that Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, tried to block an amendment last year to give the VA streamlined firing powers for senior executives. Mr. Rubio also said Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton had failed the VA test by refusing to acknowledge major problems at the agency.

Initially, Mrs. Clinton said problems at the Veterans Health Administration had “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.” Her campaign later walked back those comments, and she has released her own plan for the VA that she said would modernize the department.

She also said she would allow some veterans to seek private care — but she didn’t go as far as Republicans, who have called for veterans to be able to use government funds to pay private doctors when the VA fails them.

Mr. Rubio said his plans would have health benefits follow the veteran, not the other way around.

“That means if the local VA doesn’t provide efficient and high quality care but the hospital around the corner does, you will be able to take your VA benefits and go to that hospital,” he said.

Mr. Rubio credited his brother as his inspiration to fight so hard.

Mario Rubio was treated for his dental injury by the military after his accident, but the work was never recorded. When problems arose recently, the VA rejected his claim, the senator said. Mario Rubio filed an appeal, but that could take up to three years to be settled, leaving him waiting for the procedure.

“Mario is going through the exact same bureaucratic nightmare every other veteran in his situation has to go through. And like so many of them, he will tell you how confusing it has been, how even the forms he has to fill out seem almost intentionally complicated,” the senator said. “My brother, like all of our veterans, deserves better. When I am president, they will have better.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis said the VA does great work for hundreds of thousands of veterans every day, and the first step to solving problems in the agency is identifying them.

“What Senator Rubio said by singling out his brother, he identified a problem,” Mr. Davis said. “Now, how deep does the problem go? It’s a complex system. It’s easy to throw darts.”

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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