Veterans Day at the VA

Veterans Day is a good time to take stock of the situation at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where the promises are still big, but the actions have been rather vague.  The Washington Examiner describes veterans’ groups as “skeptical,” even as the new VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, promises firings, restructuring, and over a thousand disciplinary actions:

On Monday, the American Legion, a nonprofit representing U.S. war veterans, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner that it agrees with McDonald that the VA needs to ???take the accountability issues very seriously.”

The Legion expects McDonald to take ???decisive action in removing those individuals ??? whether there are 1,000 or more ??? responsible for endangering our veterans by forcing them to wait months or even years for medical appointments,” said Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion in Washington.

Only one of four senior employees at the VA has been fired, a result Jones said has the Legion “quite disappointed.”

Pete Hegseth, who heads Concerned Veterans for America, called today???s actions ???not an overhaul” and that “there is no actual fundamental reform of the VA.???

???It???s good to hear [McDonald] talk about it, but he needs to do it,??? Hegseth said.

“If VA wants to rebuild its reputation with veterans and the prospective health care employees it says it needs, then it should stop making excuses for the villains of the VA scandal and get serious about purging them from the payroll,” Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement.

The remainder of Rep. Miller’s statement said, “So far VA hasn’t done that – as evidenced by the fact that the majority of those who caused the VA scandal are still on the department payroll.”

The VA has been troubled for a long time, but it really does seem like transparency and accountability are at low ebbs in Washington these days.  Every investigation is dragged out forever, the media is manipulated into abandoning stories (without much resistance), and sackings of top officials are so rare that it becomes a man-bites-dog story when it happens.  One reason veterans’ groups are unhappy with the Administration is that they remember President Obama’s copious campaign promises to fix the Department, but instead it got worse, leading up to the horrifying business of secret waiting lists where veterans were left to die, while officials pumped their reports full of bogus treatment figures and collected bonus checks.

Nothing the Administration has done thus far, including President Obama’s public statements, has reflected anything approaching the anger felt by veterans, their families, and their ardent supporters.  This story is getting so old that the media is already sizing it up for a casket in the Mausoleum of Old News, and the Administration is still talking about what it’s planning to do.  Secretary McDonald says firings have begun, so Veterans Day 2014 is meant to go down on the calendar as the day something finally started happening, almost four months after McDonald took over from previous VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The big Veterans Day media push included a 60 Minutes profile of the new Secretary, a management expert who previously worked as CEO of Procter & Gamble.  McDonald seems well aware of how jilted and cynical veterans feel, and to understand that sometimes low expectations are more of a hurdle for someone in his position than high expectations would be.  He said the people he has begun terminating violated the values of the Department, which he described as “integrity, advocacy, respect, and excellence.”  That sounds great… but how, exactly, did the Department of Veterans Affairs come to lack those qualities to such a hideous degree?

60 Minutes provided part of the answer as commentary: “But Bob McDonald can’t punish or fire a thousand people right now. He’s discovering how different the Capitol is from capitalism. To fire a government manager he has to put together a case and prove it to an administrative judge.”  As McDonald conceded during the interview, that means the bad actors are all currently enjoying “paid administrative leave” while their fates are decided.  In order to keep them away from our veterans, we have to send them on extended vacation?

Pardon us out here in flyover country if that makes us skeptical about just how much this, or any other, titan bureaucracy can be reformed under such rules of engagement.  It sounds like we ought to be pushing as much of the VA into the private sector as possible, if we want transparency, accountability, and noble service cheerfully rendered.  In the end, we can hope this former CEO will make a good VA Secretary, but Cabinet secretaries are not CEOs.