- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2015

President Obama will proclaim progress Friday on promised reforms in veterans’ health care at the Phoenix hospital where the scandal erupted last year, but critics and whistleblowers say little has changed at the ailing Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president will set foot in the Phoenix VA for the first time since reports surfaced of secret waiting lists and delayed care for veterans. White House aides said Mr. Obama, whose trip includes a Democratic fundraiser and an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” will call attention to improved care at VA facilities and shorter waiting times nationwide under new embattled VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

The White House said Friday that Mr. Obama also will announce the creation of a new advisory committee to advise the VA on ways the agency can improve customer service.

But critics say Mr. Obama and his administration have shown a lack of seriousness and accountability in addressing what ails the VA.

They say the administration has failed to discipline managers responsible for the crisis, has sought to cut funding that would give veterans more health care options, has looked the other way at retaliation against whistleblowers and delayed an investigation of the Phoenix hospital itself.

“The employees are scared to come forward,” said Brandon Coleman, a therapist at the Phoenix VA who was suspended 45 days ago after complaining to a supervisor that suicidal veterans weren’t receiving emergency treatment.


SEE ALSO: VA Secretary McDonald defends Obama’s Choice Card budget cut


Mr. Coleman met one-on-one with Mr. McDonald in Phoenix on Thursday in an effort to be reinstated, and said the secretary agreed to hear a proposal from Mr. Coleman’s attorney on another “wait time” problem — the time it takes for the VA to resolve the employment status of whistleblowers who’ve been suspended.

Further, critics say, Mr. Obama still hasn’t appointed a permanent inspector general for the VA, more than one year after the last Senate-confirmed inspector general retired.

As if to sum up the fitful pace of reform, The Washington Times has learned that a federal judge recently ordered the VA to pay back fired Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman about $9,000 that the agency had seized as “overpayment” of her salary.

Ms. Helman was fired last year, not for keeping secret waiting lists at the hospital, but for accepting gifts from a consultant whose job it was to funnel government contracts from the VA to clients, including airline tickets for her family and free seats at a Beyonce concert.

House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said it’s time for the administration to “step up and use the tools Congress gave it to reform the department,” including a “Choice Card” program to allow veterans to get care outside the VA system and greater authority for Mr. McDonald to fire employees.

“The vast majority of this money remains unspent and the expanded accountability authority has rarely been used,” Mr. Miller said. “Nearly a year after the nation was rocked by a scandal involving secret waiting lists at more than 100 VA facilities, not a single VA senior executive has been fired for wait time manipulation. What’s more, efforts to hold employees accountable in Phoenix have been repeatedly botched.”

The VA says wait times for health care are down. The agency completed more than 37 million appointments nationwide between May 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2014 — about 1.8 million more appointments than were completed during the same period in 2013.

Mr. McDonald claimed in mid-February that the VA had fired 60 employees in direct connection with the waiting-list scandal. But a check of the facts revealed that the VA had ousted only 19 employees in connection with the scandal.

The secretary also said he had dismissed a total of about 900 employees since last July in his effort to clean house. But about half of them were first-year probationary workers, who are much easier to fire under labor rules.

The statistics showed that Mr. McDonald is on a pace to fire about 1,700 employees during his first year, less than the total number dismissed by his predecessor, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, who fired 2,247 people during fiscal year 2013. The VA has about 325,000 full-time employees nationwide.

A survey conducted for the VFW earlier this month found that nearly 80 percent of veterans who are eligible for the VA Choice Card program, either because they live too far from a VA facility or couldn’t get an appointment within 30 days, were not afforded the choice to receive non-VA care.

The administration wants to transfer billions of dollars out of the program, saying the VA needs more flexibility in providing care, but most lawmakers oppose the move.

Nor does it appear that the VA has affected a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates whistleblower claims, said earlier this month it has received 111 reprisal cases at the VA since Mr. McDonald became secretary.

At a town hall meeting at the Philadelphia VA office this week, a manager told employees that her greatest “obstacle” is media scrutiny prompted by “every time some veteran or widow goes to the newspapers,” because the resulting attention “keeps us from doing the job.”

Mr. Coleman said his suspension hurt not only him, but 71 at-risk veterans who were in a specialized treatment program that he created three years ago. The Phoenix VA hospital closed the program when he was suspended.

“They shut it down in retaliation for me coming forward,” Mr. Coleman said in an interview.

In spite of the persistent problems, Mr. Coleman said it is “a good start” for Mr. Obama to visit the Phoenix VA.

“Having a dialogue at ground zero with the commander in chief is very important,” Mr. Coleman said. “It lets veterans know that they matter. With the secretary meeting with myself and with other whistleblowers, hopefully it will bring about change that will cure the systemic problems that continue to happen throughout the VA.”

Mr. Obama’s motorcade sped past the Phoenix VA during a visit to the city in January, as veterans’ groups and GOP lawmakers urged him to visit the facility. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said this time Mr. Obama “got the message.”

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