- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday that the VA is “still in critical condition” with patients waiting too long for services and a bureaucracy unable to fire poorly performing employees.

Mr. Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump’s Cabinet, urged Congress to give the agency more power to discipline employees and expand the Veterans Choice program that allows vets to get treatment from private-sector doctors and hospitals.

Current rules prevent the VA from suspending or firing employees in a timely manner, including a recent case where it took more than a month to fire a psychiatrist caught watching pornography on his iPad while seeing a veteran.

“Our accountability processes are clearly broken,” said Mr. Shulkin, a physician.

In the “State of the VA” report, the secretary listed 13 areas where the agency needs to be overhauled, including refurbishing underutilized facilities, outsourcing IT and addressing veteran suicides.

Suicide claims the lives of 20 veterans every day and preventing it was a top clinical priority for Mr. Shulkin.

“This is a national public health crisis, and it requires solution that not only V.A. will work on, but all of government and other partnerships in the private sector,” he said.

The VA plans to launch a new initiative called “Getting to Zero” this summer seeking to end veteran suicides.

Mr. Trump’s budget proposed boosting funding for the VA by 3.7 percent, with most of the money for healthcare and $29 million specifically for the Choice program over the next decade.

Mr. Shulkin said the budget was sufficient to cover need improvement. “The problems in VA are not largely going to be solved through additional money. These are going to be solved through management practices, focus, and some legislative changes,” he said.

Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, commended Mr. Schulkin for the “honest assessment” of the agency and for reaffirming the Trump administration’s commitment to building a better VA.

The Tennessee Republican said the committee stood ready to continue working with the Trump administration to “bring wholesale reform to the department.”

A pattern of negligent and mistreatment at VA hospitals came to light in 2014. A report by CNN found that at least 40 veterans died while on long waiting lists for care at the facility in Phoenix, Arizona.

More problems emerged at facilities across the country, including secret waiting lists that were kept hidden by executives in order to collect bonus pay.

The Veterans Choice Program was created in response. The program, however, was opposed by Democrats who called it an attempt to privatize the VA. Mr. Trump last month signed into law a bill that extends the program.

Mr. Shulkin also credited the president with taking executive action to create a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which reported directly to the secretary.

“But that isn’t enough,” said Mr. Shulkin. “We need new accountability legislation and we need that now.”

The effort to clean house at the VA have been thwarted by judges and the federal Merit Systems Protection Board that in many cases reinstate fired employees.

A recent example that grabbed headlines was the reinstatement this month of a notorious director of a VA hospital in Puerto Ricco, DeWayne Hamlin, who was fired on Mr Trump’s first day in office.

Mr. Hamlin’s offenses included attempting to fire a whistleblower who alerted officials to his arrest for intoxicated driving, possession of painkillers prescribed to someone else and attempting to bribe another employee to help fire the whistleblower.

Mr. Shulkin said he supported due process for employees but that he, as secretary, needs greater authority to enforce disciplinary measures, as provided in accountability legislation now working its way through Congress.

The House passed the bill that would make it easier to fire bad VA employees. The Senate has yet to act.

“It shortens the time and it gives more authority to the secretary’s decision on why these accountability actions are being taken, so that the courts would be more deferential — that’s the legal term — to the secretary’s opinion, said Mr. Shulkin. “I do believe that would have changed the situation.”

Despite limitations in current law, the VA has moved to purge executives and others for poor performance and mismanagement. The agency recently fired the medial director and other executives in the Washington, D.C., facility and the medical director and three other executive in the Shreveport, Louisiana, facility.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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