House Speaker John A. Boehner said Wednesday that the Obama administration hasn’t fired enough people in the wake of last year’s veterans health care scandal, and said it’s up to the president to come up with a real plan to fix the VA.
Just one person has been fired by the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of the scandal — though investigators found more than 100 VA facilities kept secret waiting lists that left veterans struggling to get the treatment they deserved.
“What the hell happened to the rest of them?” Mr. Boehner said on the floor of the House, saying the looming Memorial Day holiday should be a time for Mr. Obama to revisit the issue and get a grip on things at the struggling agency. “It’s arrogance, and it’s arrogance that allows our veterans to be lied to, ignored, and frankly, left to die.”
But Mr. Boehner also was facing criticism from some lawmakers in his own party this week as Congress tries to reach an agreement with the VA to avert another work stoppage at Colorado’s VA hospital construction project, which has ballooned in cost from $400 million to more than $1.7 billion.
Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, said he was “disappointed” in Mr. Boehner for “not showing appropriate leadership” to resolve the issue.
“I hope I can convince [Mr. Boehner] to understand that our veterans should not be the casualty,” he told KUSA in Denver. “I do not sense the urgency.”
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Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. Boehner is on the mark with his criticisms of the administration and the VA.
“It hasn’t improved, the culture has not changed, and there has been very little to no accountability,” Mr. Hegseth said. “When Speaker Boehner said one person had been fired [for the waiting list scandal] — actually, technically, that one person is still under review. So technically the number is still zero people fired.”
He said VA Secretary Robert McDonald has been unable to make the needed reforms since taking over last July, and that’s why the veterans group supports legislation that would give the VA secretary the authority to fire anyone in the agency for cause.
“It’s still a culture that covers up, it’s still a culture that singles out whistleblowers,” Mr. Hegseth said. “This is ultimately a bureaucratic culture problem.”
As for the agency’s construction cost overruns in Colorado, Mr. Hegseth asked, “Why is the VA in the construction business? It’s clearly inept when it does.”
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said “much has been accomplished, but there’s still more to be done in order to ensure every veteran gets the timely and quality care they earned and deserve.”
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Mr. McDonald told congressional leaders that work on the Denver facility will stop over the coming Memorial Day weekend without additional funds authorized. He said his department has identified $150 million it could funnel to the project from this year’s budget to keep the work moving, but Congress must raise the spending limit by $200 million to $1 billion.
Republican leaders rejected that offer, with Mr. Boehner saying the agency hasn’t done enough to manage its spending better. The VA has asked Congress to appropriate another $730 million to finish the project, money that is separate from the $150 million in potential emergency funds.
Mr. McDonald said Wednesday night it will be Congress’ fault if construction on the Denver hospital is halted this weekend.
“Our veterans deserve better than that,” Mr. McDonald said in a statement. “I have presented a plan. Congress has not proposed a counter plan. Inaction by Congress will punish the nearly 400,000 Colorado veterans and families that Aurora will serve – as well as taxpayers across the nation.”
Mr. Obama last year demanded the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and replaced him with Mr. McDonald, and Congress passed a law giving the department streamlined powers to fire bad employees.
But Mr. Boehner said most employees have been allowed to resign or retire and collect government benefits, rather than being outright fired. He also said that despite Mr. Obama’s shuffling of department leadership, on a number of other measures, the VA has either failed to improve or even slid backwards.
“Congress also gave the VA more than $16 billion to improve care and shorten wait times,” Mr. Boehner said. “And yet, the number of patients facing long waits is about the same. The number of patients waiting more than 90 days has nearly doubled. At this point, the VA can’t even build a hospital — just about every project ends up years behind schedule and hundreds of millions, if not billions, over budget.”
Federal investigators have uncovered persistent problems in the VA, from fraudulent record-keeping to long delays in addressing veterans’ claims for benefits to reprisals against whistleblowers.
Mr. Boehner said the administration still needs to “change the culture from within.”
“The president owes the American people a real, long-term plan to fix the VA,” Mr. Boehner said. “Not a promise, or a pledge, or a rearranging of deck chairs — a real plan to clean up this mess.”