- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2015

President Obama is expected to highlight his administration’s progress on veterans’ issues Tuesday in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but many veterans, lawmakers and whistleblowers say the Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t improved since a scandal erupted last year over delayed health care for veterans.

Mr. Obama is scheduled address to the group’s annual convention in Pittsburgh amid reports that veterans’ wait times for doctors’ appointments have increased in the past year, and with the VA revealing a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall that has Republican lawmakers fuming.

The agency also is struggling to cut into its backlog of benefits claims. Some regional offices such as the one in Baltimore take an average of 280 days to respond to veterans’ requests.

“The VA is still an utterly dysfunctional bureaucracy,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. “[The president] has done nothing proactively to change the culture. I don’t know what he can say in front of the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] — seriously. I have no idea what he could even remotely attempt to proactively tout as something he has done. You’re going to hear them touting some sort of progress that is no progress at all.”

Another subject Mr. Obama intends to discuss at the convention is the nuclear accord with Iran that his administration struck last week. The president said he will lobby the veterans group to support the agreement “for keeping this country safe and secure through the hard work of diplomacy over the easy rush to war.”

“Nobody understands the true cost of war better than those who’ve actually served in this country’s uniform,” the president said in his weekly address Saturday.

On Friday, Mr. Obama met at the White House with 110-year-old Emma Didlake, the oldest veteran in the U.S., who served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. The president praised her as an example of the sacrifices of the “greatest generation,” the trailblazing of female veterans and the integration efforts of black veterans.

“We are very, very proud of them,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s why we’ve got to make sure we do right by them.”

Critics say the VA isn’t doing right by veterans. In VA regional offices such as those in Philadelphia and Phoenix, where the scandal over phony waiting lists began last year, whistleblowers say the agency isn’t holding managers or employees accountable for problems including fraud and poor performance.

Against that backdrop of persistent complaints, the House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would make it easier for the VA to fire workers suspected of wrongdoing. The legislation would allow VA Secretary Robert McDonald to remove any employee based on performance or misconduct; employees could appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of dismissal.

“President Obama promised reform at the VA. It hasn’t happened,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “He promised accountability. It hasn’t happened.”

“This is about what’s right,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, urging lawmakers to support his bill. “The status quo doesn’t work. Are you going to stand with the veterans or stand with the bureaucrats?”

‘Let’s wait and see’

Congress approved similar legislation last year, but it applied only to the department’s top-level officials. Some Democratic lawmakers argue that the proposed legislation would strip lower-level employees of civil service protections.

Despite its continued problems, Mr. McDonald said, the agency has made significant progress in the past year to improve its health care system and service delivery and set the course for long-term reform.

“Veterans need VA and many more Americans benefit from VA,” Mr. McDonald said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The lack of accountability at the VA has become so routine that the Philadelphia office caused shock waves this month when it announced that the agency planned to fire or suspend eight employees involved in falsifying claim dates to hide the office’s backlog.

Some workers said even that action is unlikely to address mismanagement at the highest levels in the office.

“Let’s wait and see who gets punished before we reserve the ballroom for the victory party,” said one employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Underscoring the culture of retaliation, VA officials acknowledged last week that they have opened an investigation into accusations that a ranking manager in the Philadelphia office posted derogatory and possibly threatening tweets aimed at agency whistleblowers.

“So all you need to do is make false allegations and suddenly it’s gospel,” one tweet read. “You know who you are you piece of [expletive]. You & your accomplice.”

The handle on the Twitter account is @lina_g148, and appears to match the name of Lina Giampa, the VA office’s human resources manager. She hasn’t commented on the matter.

Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican, told Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens in a letter that it was “deeply troubling to learn that employees who have spoken up about the wide-ranging mismanagement and failures and the [Philadelphia office] could be subject to such treatment.”

“I have met with these whistleblowers, and I have heard their stories,” Mr. Meehan said. “Their observations deserve to be taken seriously and investigated fully.”

Claims backlog

Mr. Hegseth said he and other veterans are worried that the VA leadership wants to cover its budget shortfall by moving funds out of its $10 billion Choice Card program, which was created to give veterans more health care options outside the VA system. The agency’s latest shortfall was reported despite a massive increase in funding — from a budget of $70 billion in 2015 to a proposed budget of $168 billion in fiscal 2016.

“How can someone not be held accountable for the sudden appearance of a $3 billion shortfall?” Mr. Hegseth asked. “In order to fund that shortfall, they’re going to the Choice Card program. We’ve got the polling; 90 percent of veterans want Choice. It is a clear attempt to undermine a program that the bureaucracy doesn’t want to be successful.”

VA officials say the shortfall is mainly the result of veterans’ increased demand for health care, including new life-saving treatments for hepatitis C, that resulted in a 10.5 percent increase in the agency’s workload from April 2014 to April 2015.

Some veterans expect Mr. Obama to hail the VA’s progress in cutting into its claims backlog, from more than 611,000 in March 2013 to fewer than 124,000 as of last week.

Mr. Hegseth said the progress is mainly on paper because appeals have soared as the agency dispenses with claims faster, and appeals take even longer to resolve.

“Now you have over 300,000 vets in the appeals backlog, which takes three to four years to resolve,” he said. “That’s a story they’re not going to want to tell. It’s just a paper-shuffling exercise to get the number to a low number so they can pat themselves on the back and say they’ve accomplished something. It has no connection to an improved well-being for a veteran.”

A Senate VA Claims Backlog Working Group reported in May that about 188,000 claims — roughly 40 percent of all ongoing claims — have been pending more than 125 days. Some critics say the agency is simply denying more claims so they can be marked as “resolved,” creating the latest backlog of appeals.

The agency said it is still focused on eliminating the claims backlog by the end of this year.

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