Politics & Policy

Needed: Reform at Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs secretary Robert McDonald (Alex Wong/Getty)
Memo to the GOP Congress: VA reform should be a priority in 2016.

Nearly two years after systemic problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs boiled over into a nationwide scandal, veterans continue to struggle with a dysfunctional bureaucracy and long waits for health care and other critical benefits. While most observers agree that the VA seriously needs reform, it’s now more than clear that the impetus for change will not come from the Obama administration. Instead, Obama and his VA secretary, Robert McDonald, have chosen to double down on the VA’s failed government-run health-care system and have sided with the government unions against common-sense civil-service reforms within the VA.

While Obama has repeatedly pledged to address the problem and restore accountability to the VA, those pledges have not been honored.

Running for president in 2007, Obama was generous with promises to veterans. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the candidate urged “comprehensive reform” and promised to build “a 21st century VA to serve our veterans” and to “revamp an overburdened benefits system.”

Those are fine goals, but unfortunately, Obama’s idea of reform ultimately consisted of little more than dumping more money into the VA, with next to nothing to show for it. The department budget ballooned, more than doubling over the last decade — a fact the Obama administration routinely trumpets as an achievement. Yet the VA’s performance has only worsened by virtually all measures.

RELATED: It’s Time to Get Rid of the VA

The end result of that approach has been predictable. Americans seem to have grown numb to reports of mismanagement, waste, and worse from the VA. Each week brings new reports from around the country: poor and delayed care, backlogged benefit claims, rampant cost overruns, manipulated data, retaliation against whistleblowers — the list goes on. 

Within the department, leadership is scarce. Secretary McDonald initially appeared to show promise of leading a turnaround at the second-largest federal department. But, like Obama, he has proved unable or unwilling to address the systemic issues plaguing the VA. Instead, he has become the biggest defender of the VA’s broken bureaucracy.

The lack of leadership has only served to empower those who seek to protect the status quo.

The lack of leadership has only served to empower those who seek to protect the status quo. That’s not only a betrayal of our veterans — it’s also a betrayal of the many dedicated VA employees who are shocked and appalled at the department’s mismanagement. It will surprise no one to learn that the VA is routinely ranked among the worst federal agencies to work for, according to the Partnership for Public Service.  

Clearly, the VA is in crisis. So what is to be done?

#share#In Washington, it’s often assumed that one should expect little in an administration’s final year (an assumption acknowledged by Obama at the beginning of his last State of the Union speech). A sense of exhaustion sets in, and as the presidential campaign heats up, leaders in Congress may decide to sit back, wait for the dust to settle, and hope for a more favorable climate after the election.

But when it comes to VA reform, it would be a grievous mistake to allow 2016 to become another wasted year. Now is the time for Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to force the issue: This is a year when voters will be highly engaged, and the VA perfectly represents the failures of big government.

RELATED: The VA Needs Reforming, Not Reshuffling

Where should Congress begin? First, the Senate should move without delay to pass the VA Accountability Act, which will make it easier for the VA secretary to terminate poorly performing employees and will enhance protections for whistleblowers. This bill is supported by nearly every major veterans’ organization, including the American Legion and VFW, and the House of Representatives already passed it with a bipartisan majority last summer. Accordingly, there should be no excuse for Majority Leader McConnell not to make this bill a top priority for the first part of the 2016 session.

The VA Accountability Act isn’t the only fix the department needs. Congress should also look at deeper reforms of the way the VA delivers health care to our veterans. The VA reform bill passed in 2014 was meant as only a temporary fix, and, unfortunately, many of the reforms in that bill are being undermined by the VA’s own leadership. Accordingly, Congress should look at reforms that would fundamentally change the way the VA delivers health care.

For members of Congress, the question is this: When you hit the campaign trail this year to ask voters to send you back to Washington, will you be able to look veterans and their families in the eye and tell them you’ve done everything you can to make the VA work for those who rely on it? We’ll be watching closely for your answer.

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