Chuck Lauer: The tragedy of the VA continues

Obscured by the sound and fury of the presidential campaign and other distractions is an ongoing tragedy involving healthcare: the Veteran's Administration and the wait times that our wounded warriors must endure.


Remember all of the hearings in 2014 and the promises made, that the VA would be put back on the right track and that our veterans would receive the outstanding care they deserve? Congress passed and the president signed legislation called the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The goal of the law and new funding was to reduce wait times at VA hospitals, give veterans access to outside healthcare and allow the VA to quickly terminate problem employees. Everybody felt better about the situation and moved on to other things.



It turns out nothing really changed; a couple of people were reassigned and there is a new head of the VA. But wait times are now 50 percent higher than in 2014, according to a recent article in theWall Street Journalby Kyndra Miller Rotunda, a former judge advocate general in the U.S. Army. 


As a Korean War veteran, I was outraged by what she wrote.


The men and women seeking care at the VA put their lives on the line for us. These brave young people, many from impoverished rural areas and inner cities, swore to protect all of us. The VA is supposed to help those who served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. People enter military service with the understanding that all of their medical needs will be taken care ofbycompetent and willing personnel. Many vets return from combat with horrible wounds. They've lost limbs, eyesight and hearing. Many have PTSD, and are unable to cope with their families, friends and neighbors. 


They are all looking for help from the Veterans Administration, but this organization is filled with bureaucrats who care more about their seniority and benefits than about giving our veterans the care they need now! Nottomorrow, next week, next month or — in some cases — nextyear.


The law was written with this little kicker that a veteran can seek care outside the VA system but only for 60 days. Then they are back in line at the VA. 


The part about firing top-level VA officials with less notice and fewer appellate rights than government employees normally enjoy is similarly fraught. The fired workers must appeal their terminationswithin seven daysof the discipline. The administrative judges must hear and decide the caseswithin 21 daysor the department's discipline stands. The judges cannot mitigate the penalties and their decisions are final. But it seems that plan has backfired since judges appear more inclined to side with the misbehaving officials. Ms. Rotunda gives us a startling example: "Over the past month alone, judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears appeals from federal employees, sided with three VA officials who challenged their disciplining. The MSPB reinstated all three. In each case the misconduct was severe."


Two VA officials, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, created positions with less work and more pay. They apparently moved themselves into the positions and then billed the department a total of nearly $400,000 in relocation costs. The VA inspector general investigating the matter found a "corrosive culture" existed in the highest levels of the department. He said that VA officials "were helping themselves instead of helping veterans." It would seem that termination would have been appropriate in both cases, but what happened is this: The VA merely sought to reclassify the employees' titles to reflect their scaled-back responsibilities and reduce their pay accordingly. The judge said no. Why? Because others involved weren't similarly punished.


So what's the remedy for this mess? The MSPB has raised some valid complaints about the way many of the cases are processed. For instance, maybe the 21-day window for hearing and deciding cases is too brief. Maybe judges should be given more flexibility in deciding cases, so they can take disciplinary actions that could allow the VA to do a better job.


I don't know what it will take to reduce the wait times and improve the quality of care. I'm not an expert in the VA's bureaucracy. I am, however, a proud veteran, taxpayer and citizen of this great country. We are doing a sorry job of taking care of our men and women in uniform, and I will be watching closely to see if this sad state of affairs continues. 


This is an election year, so when one of those candidates comes to town, be sure to ask them what they plan to do to cure what ails the VA.

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