On Veterans Day President Obama will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery and talk about his administration’s progress in caring for vets, but critics of the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs point to fresh scandals and persistent mismanagement as proof that little has changed.
White House officials said Tuesday that Mr. Obama will highlight progress in five areas for veterans, including cutting the backlog of benefits claims, increasing access to health care services and reducing homelessness among veterans. In conjunction with Mr. Obama’s announcements, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is set to declare Wednesday that his state is the first one to eliminate veterans’ homelessness statewide.
Mr. Obama also will call on Congress to act on three pieces of legislation to expand education benefits for veterans.
But problems within the VA continue unabated. An internal VA audit has found that the secret waitlists occurred not only in Phoenix but at 110 VA facilities.
VA officials still haven’t corrected a computer system error that led to tens of thousands of combat vets being denied VA health care enrollment, although the problem was brought to light in August.
The administration has tried under VA Secretary Robert McDonald to get beyond the crisis that erupted in Phoenix in April 2014 over delayed health care for veterans and phony waitlists, which led to the resignation of former Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. The agency said it has handled about 7 million more health care appointments for veterans in the past 12 months than in the previous year.
“Because of many of the reforms that Secretary McDonald has put into place, we have seen important progress made at the VA when it comes to ensuring that our veterans have access to the health care and benefits that they deserve,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Nearly 18 months after the waitlist scandal broke in Phoenix, the problems there aren’t fixed. An inspector general’s report in October found that seven more Phoenix-area veterans died after delayed treatment and lapses in medical care.
Mr. McDonald also acknowledged during a House hearing last month that his department also is suffering “a leadership crisis.” In September, for example, one of his top deputies quit under pressure from congressional investigators looking into a scandal over padding the salaries and relocation expenses of senior VA managers. Five VA officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing last week in connection with the probe.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the VA is still suffering from a culture that fails to hold wrongdoing accountable.
“Until the VA rids itself of those who engage in scandalous behavior, the department will always be mired in scandal,” Mr. Miller wrote in an op-ed in The Hill Tuesday. “But unfortunately, indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving are prolonging the agency’s problems indefinitely.”
Pete Hegseth, president of Concerned Veterans for America, says the VA under Mr. McDonald “is not fundamentally serious about fixing the systematic problems plaguing the department.”
And government watchdogs in the past year have found numerous additional cases of VA whistleblowers facing retaliation, and of VA leadership failing to discipline those responsible for mismanagement or dangerous health care practices.
The Office of Special Counsel wrote directly to Mr. Obama on Sept. 17 about continued problems at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, including the lack of training of emergency room nurses and substandard care at other facilities.
OSC head Carolyn Lerner told the president that the lack of accountability for the problems in Phoenix “sends the wrong message to the veterans served by this facility, including those who received substandard emergency care.”
Meanwhile, she said, the VA continues to go after employee whistleblowers with a vengeance.
“The VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions and, often, for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing,” she told Mr. Obama.
In a speech last week at the National Press Club, Mr. McDonald claimed that the VA has “proposed disciplinary action against 300 individuals for manipulating scheduling.”
“I just wish that there would be more fact-checking on some of the numbers that are used, because there are a lot of myths out there,” he added.
Actually, his claim is dubious. The VA’s own statistics submitted to Congress showed that, as of last week, there were proposed disciplinary actions against 27 employees and one senior executive specifically for patient wait-time manipulation.
Of those 27, three have been fired. And Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA medical center director, was fired for accepting improper gifts, not because of her role in the waitlist scandal.
The department has proposed disciplinary action against 305 employees for various issues, including 20 probationary workers and other nonmedical employees such as food service workers and transportation supervisors.
Funding for the VA has increased 73 percent since 2009, but examples of waste at the agency are rampant. Construction of a VA hospital in Denver is more than $1 billion overbudget. And an investigation earlier this year uncovered that a VA executive received almost $300,000 in relocation expenses to move from Washington to Philadelphia.