Are we about to see the first stirrings of accountability at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), after years of neglect, indifference, and bureaucratic dysfunction? Let’s hope so.
Last week the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, decided it had had enough. With evidence mounting that veterans had died needlessly, allegedly as a result of VA officials’ falsifying records, the Legion called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and two other top VA executives. The Legion has since been joined by key senators and several newspaper editorial boards.
I agree that Shinseki must go. The organization I represent — Concerned Veterans for America — called for the secretary’s ouster over a year ago, when the backlog of veterans awaiting action on their disability claims and compensation passed 800,000. In August, we even delivered a petition signed by 26,000 veterans to the White House, again demanding Shinseki’s replacement as VA secretary.
But if those committed to fixing the VA focus only on Shinseki’s ouster, it is at our peril. While his departure is needed to send a clear message about leadership accountability, it is not sufficient to fix what’s wrong at the agency. Shinseki is no reformer; but even if he had been, the VA’s stifling bureaucracy likely would have engulfed him. Fixing the VA will require a top-to-bottom overhaul, with a laser focus on restoring accountability at all levels.
Over the past several weeks, disturbing revelations about mismanagement and potential malfeasance at the VA medical center in Phoenix — where 40 veterans reportedly died due to delayed care — have raised serious questions about the department’s culture. Similar allegations have now arisen in Fort Collins, Colo., and San Antonio, Texas, where it’s reported that VA officials falsified records to obscure the truth about how long patients were waiting for care — once again, to the severe detriment of veterans and their families. Veterans across the country are dying in VA hospitals, far from combat, while waiting on falsified waiting lists — a national scandal.
As the truth about the VA’s failures has become increasingly undeniable, critics have rightfully turned their attention to the man in charge. That’s understandable — Shinseki is a retired U.S. Army general and should understand as well as anyone the command imperative that when a leader is failing in a mission, he or she must be swiftly replaced.
And indeed, that is the situation Shinseki finds himself in today. While I believe the secretary to be an honorable man with good intentions and a distinguished service record, he lacks the aggressive reformer mentality needed to turn the VA into a results-driven, customer-service-oriented agency. Despite substantially increased VA budgets since 2009, red tape has grown, wait times have increased, and care for too many veterans has not improved. Shinseki’s departure from the VA is necessary to signal that the agency’s sclerotic bureaucratic culture must change.
In calling for Shinseki’s resignation, the Legion cited a “pattern of scandals that has infected the entire system.” That’s a perfect summation of this crisis — it’s not just Phoenix, and it’s not just Shinseki. The medical metaphor accurately describes what has become of the VA in recent years, and it needs emergency treatment.
There is a cure for what ails the VA, and it is a powerful one: accountability. It’s time to restore leadership oversight to VA, our second-largest federal department. Only an accountable VA secretary, accountable VA leadership, and accountable VA employees can ensure that veterans are treated with the respect and honor that they have earned — and that they are too infrequently getting today.
Along with Shinseki’s departure, Congress should pass the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, a bill introduced by Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) in the House and by Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) in the Senate. The bill is powerful in its simplicity: Its one-page mandate empowers the VA secretary to remove managers who fail to perform. Common-sense, non-partisan, and long overdue, this legislation boasts 116 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and would set the stage for additional reforms at the VA. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a start.
For the good of the VA, it’s time for Shinseki to step aside (or for the president to step up and fire him), but not because we need a sacrificial lamb or a fall guy to blame for the department’s failures. No, Shinseki’s departure should serve as a clear signal to all VA managers and employees that accountability is the watchword for what ails the department and that no leaders in government are immune from being held to account should they fail to get results.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.