Don’t be fooled by last week’s headlines about more money and greater accountability at the Veterans Affairs Department. It’s the usual malarkey coming out of Washington. The prognosis for veterans who need health care remains poor, with vets likely to get the run-around and face delays again in 2016.
On Friday, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill for the coming year that allocates a whopping $163 billion to the Veterans Administration – even more than the department requested. But as long as the VA is riddled with corruption and saddled with job-protection rules that favor employees instead of vets, that’s throwing good money after bad.
As for the latest highly touted whistleblower-protection law signed by President Obama last Friday, there were whistleblower protections already on the books. What’s lacking is the will to enforce them. Adding more pages of laws won’t fix that.
The last whistleblower-protection law, passed in 2002, mandated training for VA employees in how to treat informants. VA facilities are wallpapered with posters announcing whistleblower safeguards. There’s an entire federal agency – the Office of Special Counsel – to protect them. Despite all this, VA executives penalize whistleblowers and get away with it.
That was shamefully clear at a Dec. 16 hearing about three Phoenix VA executives who tried to silence whistleblowers. A hospital spokeswoman was exiled to the basement after she reported misconduct, and an ER doctor who reported unsafe care was demoted.
It’s been over a year since an internal probe confirmed these incidents, but VA Secretary Bob McDonald hasn’t punished the offenders. One is still on the job, and the other two are collecting paid leave and benefits, now totaling $400,000.
Nothing changes. Congress keeps asking why so few heads have rolled, despite corruption and deaths from delayed care at dozens of facilities. But McDonald and his deputy, Sloan Gibson, keep dodging the question. Gibson tells Congress: “You can’t fire your way to excellence.”
The secretary and his deputies serve at the president’s pleasure. When they protect the status quo, it reflects the president’s priorities.
Until the criminal culture that pervades the VA is cleaned up, veterans are going to suffer, says House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), “and I don’t believe the president understands that.”
When two executives misused their authority to finagle job transfers for themselves and almost $500,000 in moving expenses, the inspector general recommended the pair be fired. Gibson merely demoted them. Even that didn’t stick, because VA lawyers bungled the case. “The VA can’t slap a wrist without missing the wrist,” Miller complained.
Amazingly, when Miller’s committee asked the executives to testify, they refused, and McDonald backed them up, signaling where he stands on reform.
Gibson tells Congress that employees shouldn’t “live in constant fear of being fired.”
That’s never a worry at the VA. Even the worst performers get hefty yearly bonuses. Last year, executives overseeing construction of a new Denver hospital got $4,000 to $8,000 each, despite the fact that the project is years late and more than $1 billion over budget.
Overall, VA’s finances are a mess. The inspector general reports a “breakdown of fiscal controls.” That’s why this year’s budget hike is no guarantee of improvement. The budget has nearly tripled since the late 1990s, and yet vets are suffering while waiting for care.
The Choice program, enacted 18 months ago to enable vets to see civilian doctors, was supposed to solve that. But the VA is sabotaging Choice to protect their own jobs, explains Miller.
As for wait times, Gibson tells Congress not to expect improvement.
Miller warns that it will be a “very slow, long slog in order to change the culture at the VA.” That’s true, unless we elect a president in 2016 willing to make it a priority.