Congress Can Stand With Veterans by Supporting the VA Accountability Act | Commentary

Posted June 24, 2015 at 1:21pm

One year ago, the Obama White House issued a brief but illuminating report detailing why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was failing in its mission to provide timely care to patients.

The report found the VA’s record of scandal and dysfunction was rooted in a “corrosive culture” marked by poor management and a lack of accountability. This wasn’t news to those who had been watching; what was illuminating was that the Obama administration was admitting a problem existed.

Unfortunately, 12 months later, the VA has made little progress in addressing its failures, despite the passage of the VA reform bill last summer that enhanced accountability for senior VA employees. Fresh revelations continue to emerge from the department, revealing blatant corruption, rampant waste and the continued inexcusable abuse of veterans.

Clearly, more needs to be done to address the VA’s failures, which is why Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced the VA Accountability Act. This legislation would allow the VA secretary to swiftly remove any VA employee found guilty of misconduct (not just senior managers) and greatly shortens the amount of time an employee has to appeal a removal. Giving the VA secretary this power (and his actually using it) is essential to removing scores of bad employees from the VA, thereby actually making progress in reforming the VA.

The VA Accountability Act already has more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors in both the House and Senate. In addition, almost every major veteran service organization has endorsed the legislation, including the American Legion, Veterans for Foreign Wars, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Yet despite the broad and bipartisan support for the VA Accountability Act, Washington special interest groups are trying to stop this important piece of legislation through a campaign of misinformation.

Most recently, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 200,000 VA workers, has claimed the bill would “remove job protections for whistleblowers.” This claim is not only misleading — it’s preposterous.

The reality is the current system does a poor job of protecting whistleblowers. While numerous VA employees have risked their careers coming forward to shed light on the department’s abuses, these courageous men and women have faced harassment, intimidation and retaliation from their VA superiors at virtually every turn.

Indeed, Sam Foote, the VA physician in Phoenix who first exposed how officials were manipulating wait time data to delay and deny care to veterans, had to wait until he was retired to go public with his charges. Why? Because he knew challenging the powers-that-be would jeopardize his professional career.

The reality is that whistleblowers at the VA today are still very much vulnerable to abuse and retaliation from their superiors. That is why the VA Accountability Act actually enhances protections for whistleblowers, making it more difficult for those who expose failures to be removed. The AFGE seems to believe the VA exists for the benefit of its employees, rather than for the mission of serving veterans.

Rather than defend poor performers and wrongdoers at all costs, the defenders of the status quo would do better to explain how they would fix what’s broken at the VA.

If pressed, they have a predictable answer — more funding and more personnel.

The VA has experienced dramatic increases in budgets and staffing over the past decade, and yet the problems have only grown worse. That’s because pouring more money and personnel into a broken system doesn’t make the system work better. It only magnifies the dysfunction.

Also overlooked in the misleading rhetoric about reform is that reforming the personnel system would serve to benefit the VA’s best employees.

The reality is the department has a great many committed professionals who want to serve veterans. But they too often find their efforts stymied and their morale harmed by a system that allows poor performers to remain in place. Fostering a culture of excellence through accountability would change that toxic dynamic — liberating top-quality VA employees to serve America’s veterans more efficiently and effectively.

Members of Congress now have a choice: They can stand with veterans, or they can stand with VA bureaucrats and their special-interest defenders whose main interest is preserving the status quo at the VA. When it comes to restoring the VA to its mission of service to veterans, and respecting the essential dignity of those who have honorably served their nation in uniform, there is no middle ground.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor. A U.S Army infantry veteran, he served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.