As 2017 comes to a close, it’s important to reflect back on the year. What went wrong? What went right? What can be done better heading into 2018?
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, some big changes were made for the better, but a whole lot went wrong. Poor management, wasted funds, employee misconduct…and that just covers through February.
While the VA now has broader authority to fix many of its culture problems, let’s not forget how bad those problems have gotten at VA facilities around the country this year.
The beginning of 2017 brought reports from the Office of Inspector General that hundreds of VA employees received relocation and retention bonuses from the VA, without fulfilling requirements to receive those bonuses.
Nearly 240 employees received these relocation and retention benefits without fulfilling requirements and only half of those faced reimbursement actions. Nineteen senior executives received “relocation incentives,” all of which were deemed to be improper. The most notorious of those were Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, who the IG found gamed the relocation system to move others out of higher-paying positions in ideal locations for their own gain. The Merit Systems Protection Board forced the VA to keep Rubens and Graves despite the charged misconduct.
This #VAFail ended up costing the VA millions of dollars and is further evidence of irresponsibility and waste at the VA.
The Government Accountability Office revealed in February that in 2015, 346 VA employees spent 100 percent of their time on work related to union activity rather than the jobs for which they were hired. This totaled up to more than one million hours of union work on the VA’s dime.
Meanwhile, more money was being mismanaged at the Veterans Benefits Administration. The OIG found that in just a six month period, the VBA improperly authorized 28 percent of automated death benefit payments.
Imagine opening that letter from the VA. What does this mean? For starters, living veterans received their own death benefits in the mail. Additionally, because death benefits had been paid out, some had their disability benefits discontinued.
Revelations of drug mismanagement emerged in February as well. The Associated Press reported a “sharp increase” in missing and stolen drugs at VA facilities. Oversight and tracking of prescription medication was severely lacking, and stories of employee drug diversion emerged throughout the following months.
What March lacks for in quantity of VA failures, it makes up for in severity. Using their VA email addresses, the IG found that employees of the Board of Veterans Appeals created a listserv they called the “forum of hate.” The employees would send emails on VA time making racist, demeaning and otherwise terrible comments about fellow employees as well as the veterans they served.
The emails weren’t news, as they had emerged in 2015. What was news was that as of March 2017, these employees hadn’t been fired from the VA.
April brought one of the biggest VA stories of the year chaos at the Washington, DC VA. The OIG released a rare interim report on conditions at the DC VA, claiming “serious and troubling deficiencies at the Medical Center that place patients at unnecessary risk.”
Investigators found dirty sterile-storage rooms, poor tracking and inventorying of equipment and a constant lack of supplies. Since 2014, 194 patient safety reports had been filed regarding unavailable equipment. The DC VA director would eventually be fired, but came back after his firing was overturned in August.
If the VA medical facility that sits in the VA’s and Congress’ backyard is this poorly managed, it doesn’t bode well for facilities further from the spotlight.
The beginning of 2017 was pretty gloomy for the VA, but arguably not worse than the preceding years. Zero accountability and little incentive to perform well continued to perpetuate the VA’s toxic culture.
Fundamental change took place in mid-2017, when the President signed the CVA-backed VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, but culture problems are still an issue. Stay tuned for part two of our 2017 #VAFails in review!
Shocked that veterans continue to stay within the VA health care system? Often, they don’t have a choice. Arbitrary requirements keep veterans from seeking medical care outside the VA, and they are locked in a bureaucratic and often inadequate system. That would change if Congress would pass the Veterans Empowerment Act which gives vets more choice over their health care access. Tell your Members of Congress to support the Veterans Empowerment Act now!