One of President Trump’s most important promises throughout the campaign was to ensure that American veterans receive the respect and care they deserve.
Just months into his presidency, this is a promise on which he has delivered.
First, the president’s decision to nominate Dr. David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs was critical. During his earliest days in office, I observed President Trump meticulously vet and rule out dozens of people for the post. He knew the VA was gigantic and deeply flawed, and he needed someone extremely competent to run the organization – someone who could wrangle the entrenched bureaucracy without being swallowed by it.
That is what led President Trump to choose Shulkin.
Let this sink in for a moment: Before President Trump took office, it was nearly impossible to fire a bad VA employee. Underperforming VA employees got bonuses. And executives who had been disciplined in the past received full pension benefits. The VA had become a scandal-laden, bureaucratic void.
In just five months, Shulkin has helped implement a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created a website to track and publish wait times at every VA hospital, drastically increased mental health services across the system, and developed a way to electronically transfer veterans’ medical records from the Department of Defense to the VA to simplify their transition from service to civilian life. Each one of these accomplishments is remarkable. But for President Trump and Secretary Shulkin, these achievements were merely the starting point.
On Friday, President Trump signed the Veterans Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which is the next great breakthrough for VA reform.
This legislation gives Secretary Shulkin the authority he needs to properly deal with or fire VA employees who fail to do their jobs.
The law shortens a years-long appeals process for disciplined employees and ensures that such employees will not be paid during disciplinary appeals. It also allows Shulkin to deny bonuses to underperforming employees and cut pensions for executives who misbehave. Under the law, VA employees who report misconduct within the organization will be protected from retaliation.
Let this sink in for a moment: Before President Trump took office and worked with the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass this bipartisan law, it was nearly impossible to fire a bad VA employee. Underperforming VA employees got bonuses. And executives who had been disciplined in the past received full pension benefits. The VA had become a scandal-laden, bureaucratic void, and only a few members of Congress were trying to do anything about it.
But this is no longer the case. As President Trump said before signing the law, these reforms are only the beginning, and “we will not rest until the job is 100 percent complete for our great veterans.”
While President Trump has been the main driver of this push to reform the VA, Speaker Paul Ryan and members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees deserve credit as well. Prior to Trump taking office, they had been working diligently to cure the ailments of the VA but did not have the support they needed from the previous administration.
As Speaker Ryan said on June 21 before Congress sent the bill to President Trump’s desk, “We all saw the scandals at the VA. We need to make sure something like this never happens again, and that the veterans get the care and treatment that they deserve, that they have earned.”
Now, with the support of President Trump and Secretary Shulkin, this is not only possible but as Shulkin said earlier this month at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, such change at the VA would also come quickly.
He said, “that slow and incremental steady change isn’t what this organization needs. That what we need is bolder, fundamental change dealing with the issues that frankly are really hard to deal with and that go back decades. That means, by definition, we are going to have to take greater risk. That is part of what [President Trump] has asked us to do.”
This law is a perfect example of how President Trump can make the government work – something I discuss in my #1 New York Times bestselling new book, "Understanding Trump." The VA might be the most visible example of federal incompetence, but the President has a great opportunity to work with Congress on reforms similar to the Veterans Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to cut waste at the Department of Defense, help eliminate fraud in Medicaid and Medicare, and begin reforming the entire federal civil service.
Finally, in addition to the substance of the Veterans Accountability Law, I thought last Friday’s signing ceremony clearly demonstrated how direly needed these reforms were.
President Trump and Secretary Shulkin introduced U.S. Army Sergeant Michael Verardo, who lost a leg and an arm in Afghanistan after being deployed in 2010 with the 82nd Airborne Division. Verardo underwent 110 surgeries and years of therapy to overcome his wounds. And despite his injuries, he was fortunate. Secretary Shulkin said Friday that 37 other men with whom Verardo had been deployed did not return from their missions.
Still, Verardo came home to what he called “a broken VA system.”
Upon transitioning from the Department of Defense to the VA system, Verardo constantly battled bureaucracy. He once had to wait 57 days to get his prosthetic leg repaired. It took three-and-a-half years for the VA to properly outfit his home with accessibility equipment. During his brief speech at the signing ceremony, he described a situation where he had to make a three-hour round trip to a VA facility, so doctors there could make sure he still had his “serious combat injuries” – remember he lost two limbs.
As Secretary Shulkin said, “the VA failed Michael.”
After five months in office, President Trump has done exactly what he promised and is dismantling and reforming this abysmal VA system to ensure that no other veteran has an experience similar to Sergeant Verardo’s. The years of corruption at the VA are over, and once again, protecting the lives of veterans, not the jobs of bureaucrats, is the priority.