As in years past, 2016 contained no shortage of scandals for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Department of Veterans Affairs clearly has some work to do in 2017. So, we thought it might be helpful to make a list of New Years resolutions that VA should embrace in the coming year. Here are the top 10.
1. End waste, fraud, and abuse.
Big government agencies in general are known to waste money, and the VA—the second largest after DoD—is certainly no exception. A report from Open the Books revealed that from 2004 to 2014, the VA purchased nearly $20 million in artwork. $16 million of that was spent during the President Obama’s administration. The artwork purchased was often extravagant, such as multiple sculptures costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and the associated “consultant” fees that accompanied the sculptures.
These instances of waste are small potatoes compared to the construction debacle in Aurora, Colorado. Irresponsibility and delays have resulted in a facility costing around $1.7 billion ($1 billion over budget) that is years behind schedule. Despite the warnings from consultants about ever-increasing costs, the VA went ahead with its extravagant plans that have ended up being an abuse of taxpayer money.
VA leadership continues to claim that lack of funding is the reason why VA facilities are so low-performing, but when $670,000 was spent on two sculptures to grace a center meant for blind veterans, it’s evident that they are just wasting money, not lacking money.
2. Improve wait times and backlogs.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are still waiting long periods of time to see health care providers – according to the VA’s own data. Between October 2014 and today, the number of appointments that are scheduled 30 days out or more has increased by about 16 percent.
When it comes to the Phoenix VA, where the original wait list scandal broke, the situation has gotten even worse. Recent reports show that last year, over 200 veterans there died waiting for care – and that whistleblowers are still facing retaliation. To make matters worse, Secretary McDonald just appointed a controversial new director in Phoenix with a history of mismanagement and negligence.
The situation with the claims backlog isn’t much better. In 2013, the VA had promised to eliminate the disability claims backlog by the end of 2015. However, at the end of 2015 over 70,000 disability claims remained backlogged with in the Veterans Benefits Administration. That backlog remains at around 92,000 today.
3. Terminate bad employees.
It is nearly impossible to fire poorly-performing employees or those involved in misconduct. This is, in large part, the reason for the VA’s toxic culture of waste, abuse, and apathy. Need an example? Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves: two employees found guilty of extreme misconduct who were allowed to keep their jobs. What employee wouldn’t see that and assume they can misbehave as well?
In 2017, the priority for the VA Secretary and his administration should be removing bad employees from their positions and dis-incentivizing employees from misbehaving. Measures such as those contained in the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act would ensure that the Secretary can quickly fire bad employees and smooth out the disciplinary process.
4. Be more transparent.
In the wake of the secret wait list scandal, VA has come become infamous for keeping secrets. VA hospital facilities (most notably in Phoenix but others as well), would keep “official lists” of wait times to share with their superiors, and actual lists—often non-digital—that contained the actual wait times. Employees were trained on schedule manipulation to hide actual wait times.
Wait lists aren’t the only things the VA is keeping under wraps. It was revealed in the last few weeks that the VA also has a secret internal rating system for its facilities that it was reluctant to share with the public as the public may construe the ratings.
Transparency is going to be key in reforming the VA. When the public is aware of what happens day-to-day at VA facilities, staff and leadership are kept accountable for their actions. Transparency ensures that problems at VA are public knowledge, allowing them to be quickly be addressed.
5. End the revolving door.
Phoenix seems to be the subject of every resolution for the VA, but it is truly the poster-child for terrible management and behavior. Perhaps contributing to the lack of progress is the appointment of the facility’s seventh director in under three years, a director who has a past of misconduct and could potentially bring that same incompetence to her new position.
USA Today released a report showing how the VA merely shuffles around its directors and managers and refers to them as new management rather than actually replacing them. The revolving door of poor performing reinforces the culture of misconduct at the VA and must be ended if that culture is going to be eliminated.
6. Prevent tragedies.
There have been multiple instances in which VA staff have not been vigilant in their duty to care for veterans. Chief among those are the unanswered calls and texts to the veterans crisis line. According to reports, demand for the crisis line has increased in recent years, however staff has not been dealing well with the increase. Some calling the line were transferred to voicemail and not called back. Add these egregious facts to the veterans who have died, some by suicide, waiting for care, the unsterile environments, dirty surgical tools, and abused patients and you will see a pattern emerging.
Putting the veteran first by implementing measures to ensure quality of care will help curb these tragedies.
7. Protect whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers are important to reforming the VA. These employees have experienced misconduct firsthand and choose to come forward in a less than friendly environment. But the environment should not be hostile towards whistleblowers. Protections such as those provided in the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act should be in place for those who come forward and expose wrongdoing at the VA. Retaliation should be considered abusive and a violation of the First Amendment.
8. Get organized.
It’s difficult to operate well when things are in disarray, that’s why organization is a popular goal in the new year. The VA has plenty of organizing to do if this year’s debacles are any indication of how the entire VA functions.
Ensuring that necessary documents are in their rightful place is a good place to start to avoid another situation like the one that occurred when Veterans Affairs Regional Offices that improperly shredded claim-related documents. Or the one where boxes of claims documents discovered in an ex-employee’s storage unit. Or the one where thousands of dollars’ worth of allegedly “lost” equipment may not actually be lost, but just incorrectly documented.
9. Keep promises.
This one should be a given, but apparently a reminder is needed. The duty of the VA is to provide care for veterans, plain and simple. When men and women joined the military, they were promised care after they returned, specifically for their service-related injuries. “To care for him who shall have borne the battle” is the motto of the VA, however, it sometimes seem to be little more than a nice quote on the outside of a building.
VA employees from the Secretary right down to the lowest level staff should be living out this motto every day. The number one priority at the VA must be veterans if it is to properly fulfill that promise.
The VA could use some innovation; some new ways to ensure that veterans are seen and well cared for. Expanding access to medical care should be a top priority for 2017. Measures such as those contained in the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act discussion draft would enable veterans to seek care at the doctor of their choosing rather than waiting weeks or driving hours for an appointment at their VA. New ways to address the extensive claims backlog must also be created so that veterans are not waiting months, or even years, for decisions on their claims. Finally, the VA should be finding ways to involve the private sector with new treatment and medical options, which can only make the VA stronger. The VA has many opportunities to better serve veterans.
While we as individuals take a look at our lives and look for improvement areas in the new year, we encourage the VA, its staff, and its administration to do the same. 2017 could be the year that veterans’ care vastly improves – if the VA resolves to put in the work.