Personnel reforms part of fixing what ails the VA

The revelation of systemic mismanagement and corruption within the Veterans Health Administration has been a shock to the entire country.

As a former Army soldier and a Marine Corps combat veteran, my proudest moment serving as a member of Congress was when Republicans and Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee stood shoulder-to-shoulder on behalf of our nation’s veterans, and unanimously voted for a subpoena for the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.

The subpoena required that the secretary of the VA turn over all written communications between specific employees as they may have discussed the destruction of an alleged secret “waiting list” for sick veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital. The list was an example of data manipulation used to show a reduction in wait times for veterans’ appointments in order to give a false impression regarding the state of VA’s care and possibly to secure ill-gotten financial rewards in the form of bonuses and promotions for the management at the hospital. Meanwhile, critical patient care was being delayed.

Shinseki resigned shortly after the vote for the subpoena and numerous calls for his resignation, most likely after he realized that the Democrats on the committee were not going to rise to his defense and that President Barack Obama could not claim that the attacks against the VHA were “just another partisan attack.” A nationwide audit found that data manipulation of patient wait times is systemic and is not isolated to the Phoenix hospital. That information became public after a retired VHA physician went public with the widespread data manipulation scheme that ultimately cost the lives of veterans by causing their care to be tragically delayed.

Two separate proposals have recently passed the House and the Senate to reform the VHA. Both versions emphasize more resources, some personnel reforms, and have an option for veterans to access private providers, reimbursed by the VA, based on the distance that a veteran lives from a VHA facility or if the time it takes to get an appointment is considered excessive.

The personnel reforms envisioned by both bills only affect the ability to more easily hire and fire senior managers. Neither bill would affect the vast majority of employees within the VHA who, unfortunately, will remain under a very cumbersome civil service system.

What I’ve observed as chairman of the House VA Oversight & Investigations subcommittee is that when misconduct occurs at a VHA facility no one is disciplined or fired, even when a veteran has died from the result of gross negligence. Moreover, malpractice suits against the VHA are a poor remedy for families who have lost loved ones.

I fully expect to be appointed to serve on the conference committee to negotiate the differences between the House and the Senate versions. No doubt there is a difference between the House and the Senate about whether the increased cost should be offset by reductions in other areas of the budget; that will be a significant point of contention, and I will fight to reduce spending elsewhere so that these much needed reforms don’t further increase our national debt.

Creating a choice for our veterans will help improve the quality of their health care because the VHA will no longer take them for granted and will be forced to see our veterans as their customers. If officials at a given VHA facility continue to ignore the needs of our veterans then they will lose their “customers” to private providers and the facility should subsequently be forced to close.

The majority of the employees, unlike much of the senior leadership at the VHA, are dedicated professionals who truly care about serving our nation’s veterans. The men and women who work for the VHA who have had the courage to step forward as “whistleblowers,” despite reprisal and retaliation, have allowed the country to understand that there is a very serious crisis of leadership within the VHA.

Mike Coffman, a Republican, represents Colorado’s 6th District in U.S. House of Representatives.

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