The Obama administration wants to be clear: they’re very, very angry over the dysfunctional state of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where reports of falsified wait lists and delayed care at VA medical centers are growing into a national scandal for the executive branch.
Specifically, administration officials say they’re “mad as hell.” That’s how VA Secretary Eric Shinseki described his response to the scandal in testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week.
On Sunday, the White House chief of staff told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that President Obama, not to be outdone, is “madder than hell” about the VA’s failures.
Of course, what’s lost in this contrived and cynical display of outrage from the president and his VA secretary is the fact that they’re the ones responsible for the agency’s performance. If the VA isn’t working, they should be working to fix it—not telling us how angry it makes them, like a pair of passive observers to the scene.
We also now know that these problems were raised with the administration during the presidential transition in 2008. The president and Sec. Shinseki knew about the problems then – red tape, wait times, uneven care – and yet did not fix the problems. Instead, together they made the problem worse; exploding the VA budget without demanding commensurate improvements in performance.
We’re beyond the point when expressing outrage, or long drawn-out investigations, at VA can be considered a constructive response. We know what the problems are; it’s time for action.
This week, members of Congress will have an opportunity to set the department on the right course, by voting for the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014 (H.R. 4031). They should waste no time in passing this necessary reform.
The bill’s aim is simple -- to restore accountability to a department where the leadership and bureaucracy have come to show an alarming indifference to their mission of timely and quality service to veterans. By empowering the VA secretary to fire and replace those executives who fail to perform, the VA Management Accountability Act is an important step toward righting the ship. Right now it’s nearly impossible to fire bad managers at VA, and therefore nearly impossible to hold leaders accountable.
It’s difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems at VA.
In recent weeks, we’ve learned that officials at various VA medical facilities around the nation have been falsifying patient wait lists, essentially “cooking the books” to make it appear that veterans are receiving timely care. In reality, patients were waiting months for appointments—and in many cases, dying while waiting on “secret lists.”
In Phoenix, where the scandal broke, the retired VA doctor who blew the whistle on the fraud estimates perhaps 40 veterans died while waiting for care on the secret wait list. An investigation is in progress, and criminal charges for VA officials involved in the alleged fraud are a real possibility. Regardless of criminal charges and investigations—both of which should happen—we know this: the system is infected and needs systemic reform.
It’s against this backdrop that the need for stronger accountability controls at VA has become clear. While the department has suffered a string of scandals and performance failures, the current leadership has taken no steps to shake up the leadership team and force change. (The ritual sacrifice on May 16 of Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health care, was a sham—Petzel had already announced he was planning to retire in a few months.)
Greater accountability will serve as a spur to improved performance at VA. The department suffers from a “widespread and systemic lack of accountability,” Rep. Jeff Miller, said when he introduced H.R. 4031 in February. But he also noted that the department has many able and professional employees, who would benefit from stronger accountability controls to weed out poor performers.
“While the vast majority of VA’s more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hard-working,” Miller said, “the department’s well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it.”
The bill now has significant bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, with 118 members signed on as co-sponsors. That’s a good start, and other members of Congress should now join in supporting the bill’s passage. It’s time.
If anyone deserves to be “madder than hell” right now, it’s the veterans and their families who are suffering from VA’s poor service and performance. In the absence of leadership from the executive branch, it’s put up or shut up time for Congress. It’s time to do right by our veterans by restoring accountability to VA.