House votes for VA accountability, will Senate get on board?

The ever-growing scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) -- where managers and employees across the country have falsified patient wait times and then attempted to cover it up -- has seriously damaged veterans’ trust in the department. New reports indicate the VA Inspector General’s office has now expanded its investigation to 26 facilities across the nation.

But a vote Wednesday night in the House of Representatives marks a strong first step on the road to restoring accountability to VA. The bipartisan and overwhelming passage (390-33) of the VA Management Accountability Act (H.R. 4031) shows that House members recognize the urgent need to restore trust in this troubled department.

Far from a symbolic vote, this bill represents a real reform that could reach the president’s desk.  But only if the Senate is willing to do the same. With 160 House Democrats voting for the House bill, Harry Reid will have to take notice. But what will it take to get Harry Reid to act?

There seems to be no end to the bureaucratic dysfunction, shoddy care, ineptitude, and corruption that has become the hallmark of VA reports and investigations. But the most recent scandal focusing on shady record keeping, “secret” wait lists, delayed patient care and preventable deaths has made it necessary for Congress to demand greater accountability in the department’s workforce.

In Phoenix, the retired VA doctor who blew the whistle on the scandal estimates 40 veterans died while awaiting care on a secret wait list. Meanwhile, VA officials pocketed substantial cash “performance” bonuses based on the sunny – and falsified – reports of progress they provided.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has tried to contain the damage, telling a Senate committee last week that the record falsification reflects “isolated incidents.” This claim is impossible to believe, given that we now have credible allegations that the same pattern of behavior was also taking place in Texas, Colorado, Chicago, New Mexico, North Carolina and West Virginia. There is no doubt there are more whistleblowers who will come forward and from more locations.

The response from VA leadership and the Obama administration has been at best tepid, and at worse, deceptive. While leading veterans’ organizations have called for Shinseki’s resignation, President Obama has signaled his confidence in the secretary’s leadership Wednesday for reasons that escape me.

Meanwhile, the department terminated Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health care, on May 16, to show that they mean business. But this, too, was a sham: Petzel was already weeks away from retirement, which he had announced last fall.  

The VA leadership and the Obama administration wrongly believe that the situation can be remedied by finding a single scapegoat. That’s not accountability—that’s a weak attempt at political damage control. Scapegoats, speeches and promises (the president has made, and broken, many at VA since 2009) are unacceptable; it’s time for oversight, accountability, and action.

That’s why the passage of the VA Management Accountability Act by the House of Representatives is a big deal. The bill will give the VA secretary much greater latitude to fire VA executives who fail to perform. This historic step, which passed the House with a strong bipartisan majority, will go a long way toward setting the VA on a path toward reform. It’s not a silver bullet, but it does open the door to other systemic reforms.

Kudos to Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who introduced H.R. 4031 and shepherded the bill to passage. Miller has proven himself to be a fierce advocate for veterans, as well as a member of Congress who truly grasps the importance of legislative oversight of the executive branch.

We should also recognize the veterans organizations that endorsed and supported H.R. 4031: The American Legion, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, and the organization I represent, Concerned Veterans for America. All were early and vocal supporters of H.R. 4031, and we’re grateful for their “watchdog” efforts for veterans.

Now the action moves to the Senate, where Sen. Marco Rubio’s companion version of the VA Management Accountability Act (S. 2013) awaits action. But will Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders – the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee – act? So far, they have balked at the bill, for reasons unknown. They can rest assure, our organization –and our friends – will be holding their feet to the fire. It’s put up or shut up time for the U.S. Senate.

VA has proven that it can’t be trusted to reform itself, and the Obama administration as a whole appear unlikely to do so. That means it’s time for Congress to assert its oversight authority to demand accountability at the department. We have the moral and policy high ground, let’s get to work fixing VA.