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OPINION

Turnaround at the VA: New Secretary and Trump's Executive Order Bringing Efficiency to Second-Largest Federal Agency

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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A few months back, I wrote an article for Townhall.com about the Veterans Administration. In light of Memorial Day, I thought it would be a great idea to revisit the VA and some of the developments that have transpired since then.

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At first, I was not a fan of Secretary David Shulkin. One of three Trump appointees that I questioned, I felt he had made it a point to be somewhat of a career politician. I believed what we needed in that position was not an Obama-holdover appointee, but a businessman who specialized in turning around organizations.

I have to admit—my original assessment of Secretary Shulkin has been proven wrong.

I had written that the VA would never be fixed without the ability to fire some employees and hold deplorable ones accountable. Without such tools, it’s always difficult to turn around any organization, a primary reason for the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of so many government agencies.

In my opinion, the VA was the most disturbing of all such agencies because it is dealing with life-and-death situations—and, more importantly, the life and standard of living of veterans who have served our country so faithfully.

Order with Consequences

A few weeks ago, President Trump issued an executive order that established an office of accountability and whistleblower protection within the VA. This order was not only a necessary part of turning around the Veterans Administration, it was the fulfillment of a campaign promise to veterans.

The executive order simply states: “The Office will help the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to discipline or terminate VA managers or employees who fail to carry out their duties in helping our veterans. The Office will also identify barriers to the Secretary’s authority to put the well-being of our veterans first.”

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It was as if the president read several of my articles indicating that, without the ability to terminate employees, no success would ever come to the VA. This executive order didn’t get the press coverage it deserved. As a veteran, this was an incredibly significant executive order and will have huge impact in turning around the VA.

Effective Management

Remember, when President Trump came into office, there was a hiring freeze on federal employees, which has since been lifted. Recently, in the president’s blueprint for a budget, he called for a 6 percent increase for the VA, the second-largest federal agency with more than 365,000 employees.

While that is a nice gesture, it will not solve the VA’s problems. Back in the days of continued bloated government programs, 6 percent would hardly be considered enough to operate an agency of this size. However, based on Secretary Shulkin’s effective management, 6 percent could look like a windfall.

After all, the VA is seeking to close nearly 1,100 facilities nationwide and has identified more than 430 vacant buildings and 735 that are described as “underutilized.” All this currently costs the government about $25 million a year.

The Secretary simply said to the House appropriations committee, according to PBS Newshour, “We want to stop supporting our use of maintenance of buildings we don’t need, and we want to reinvest that in buildings we know have capital needs.”

That certainly does not sound like a career politician by any stretch of the imagination. It sounds like a businessman who wants to immediately be about the business of turning around the VA and utilizing dollars where they are best needed.

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Improving Veterans’ Care

It gets better. Even though the hiring freeze has been lifted, the VA announced hiring restrictions on roughly 4,000 positions. This, of course, will open the door to workforce reductions that could likely save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, while at the same time taking the quality and efficiency of care for our veterans to new heights.

It looks like Memorial Day 2017 could be the time that we stop talking about what the Veterans Administration needs and start doing what is necessary to create efficiency and effectiveness, and if accountability comes to the second-largest federal government agency as it starts on a path of recovery, the results will be unprecedented—and something seldom seen in government.

It would appear that Secretary Shulkin and President Trump are well on their way to being a team that our veterans have been waiting on for a very long time.

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