Rep. Arrington: Our veterans deserve a VA system that works. It starts today

Hardworking men and women from all across America get up every day, go to work, and deliver results. If they don’t, they lose their jobs -- that’s the basic definition of accountability in the workplace.

For far too long, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees haven’t been living up to the same work standards of the average American.

Stories of excessive wait times and backlogs, poor quality of care, and misconduct have plagued the Department for years and are repeated in every state across the country -- including my home state of Texas. As the VA’s culture falters, so does their service to our veterans.

At a time when our nation feels divided on most issues -- if there’s anything we can all agree on it’s that we must serve our veterans with the same passion and commitment they displayed in their service to our country. Unfortunately, instead of having a culture of accountability at the VA, we have one that fosters complacency and mediocrity. As long as this environment persists, there is no amount of programs or resources that can fix this problem.

After several years of legislative fits and starts, the House and Senate put America’s interests first and passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act and sent it on to the president’s desk.

This bill strengthens accountability at the VA by speeding up disciplinary actions, allowing recoupment or reduction in an employee’s pension, bonus, or relocation expense for misconduct, and enhances protections for whistleblowers.

Most VA employees are deeply committed to their mission. The root of the problem isn’t with the people, it’s the dysfunctional system and broken bureaucracy prompted by a lack of accountability. Without accountability, people cut corners. Without accountability, excellence in service is impossible.

Veterans gave us their very best, now it’s time we give them ours. Having almost half a million delinquent disability claims is not our very best.

Having veterans wait in line for months, some dying while waiting to see a physician, is not our very best.

Having hundreds of billions of dollars of improper payments is not our very best.

Waiting up to a year to terminate somebody for misconduct or poor performance is definitely not our very best.

After being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, these heroes should not have to continue to make sacrifices when they return home.

From the Secretary down to the receptionist at a local clinic, every VA employee must have a sense of duty and commitment to serve “those who have borne the battle”.

That’s why this legislation is so important. It gives the Secretary the tools he needs to hold his employees accountable, to ensure they’re serving our veterans, and to change the culture from one that tolerates mediocrity to one that expects excellence.

Too often, we take for granted the things we value most. We all appreciate the one percent of Americans who fight to keep us safe and free but we don’t always remember what their sacrifice entails. Veterans were prepared to die.

Veterans were prepared to take on the sobering responsibility of taking a human life. They were prepared to give up their today so that we could have our tomorrow. They did these things so that more Americans wouldn’t have to.

President John F. Kennedy taught us that “as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

I am proud that both Republicans and Democrats of the 115th Congress have lived up to President Kennedy’s admonition.

Reforming the VA is no doubt a monstrous task. For too long we have addressed the symptoms of the VA rather than the root problem.

Judi Adler, a U.S. Olympian, once said that “champions know there are no shortcuts to the top. They climb the mountain one step at a time. They have no use for helicopters.”

To truly tackle the problems facing the VA, we must stop searching for a helicopter (new programs and more money) and embark on the difficult journey of creating a culture of excellence one step at a time.

It will take patience, persistence, and relentless determination, but that’s the very least we can do for the brave men and women who have served this country.

Although the mountain before us is steep, this bill gives us the necessary tools to climb it. Let’s get to climbing and be true champions for our veterans.