Empower VA Secretary to Act, Then Require Him To

Posted: Jul 30, 2015 1:51 PM

In has been almost a year since the director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System was firedafter numerous reports of mismanagement and malfeasance were exposed. Among them:

· Manipulation of veteran patient scheduling data was pervasive, as a national-high of more than 57 percent of employees reported that managers instructed them to change appointment times to artificially hide chronically long waits;

· More than 1000 patient X-Rays, some showing malignancies, went missing for months and years;

· A pulmonologist was caught twice falsifying more than 1200 patient records, but somehow given a satisfactory review;

· An employee took a recovering veteran to a crack house, bought him drugs and prostitutes, all to extort his veterans benefits. When caught, the employee wasn’t fired - not until a year and half later when we exposed it publicly.

Given theses egregious revelations, it was hardly surprising that the Central Alabama VA director became the first senior VA manager fired for cause under the VA reform law passed by Congress last August. That law gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs long-needed authority to swiftly remove senior managers for misconduct or mismanagement.

Two other top managers have also since been fired under the law, bringing the total number of terminations completed to three. Given the widespread problems throughout the VA, that seems like a small number, right? How could that be given that the VA reform law was said to have given the Secretary “historic” new firing authority?

The answer is that law, while a major positive step in terms of accountability, stopped short of authorizing the Secretary to swiftly fire mid-level employees who similarly contributed to the culture of corruption and complacency at VA systems nationwide.

That’s why this week, the House passed H.R. 1994, The VA Accountability Act, which grants the Secretary the legal tools he needs to remove all bad actors. This legislation is important toward doing just what its name suggests: finally holding VA employees from top to bottom accountable for the job they do in serving our veterans.

I appreciate the leadership and dedication to veterans shown by my friend, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who serves as Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and who sponsored this much-needed legislation. I believe sweeping authority to remove problem employees will help solve some of the broader problems with accountability that exist throughout this sprawling federal agency.

However, I also believe the VA has more acute problems at particularly troubled medical centers that will require more specific measures. You see, while the director in Central Alabama was rightly-removed last August, the system has continued to struggle. I said at the time that the blame with such pervasive problems cannot rest with one individual, and that has proven to be true.

Recently, VA medical centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee were identified as worst and second worst, respectively, in the nation for delays in patient appointment completions. Communication and coordination between various levels of management are still badly out of sync at a time when we can least afford it. It seems like every time I think we are in a position to make real progress in Central Alabama something falls through the cracks. The ball gets dropped. An opportunity gets missed.

And, every time, VA leadership can point to the various layers of bureaucracy for why problems persist. Promises, excuses, but not action.

I believe the problem is we have been depending on a broken bureaucracy to fix itself. I believe the problem is we have been asking for VA leaders to intervene at this troubled system, rather than requiring them to. I believe it’s time to change that by breaking through the bureaucracy to get results on behalf of our veterans.

What happens when a public school continues to fail to meet basic standards? The state department of education steps in to takeover and takes charge of turning the place around. It is a process that isn’t pleasant, but everyone from principals and teachers to students and parents understand the consequences of failure to improve.

I believe we need a similar mechanism at the VA when medical centers continually fail our veterans.

That’s why this week I filed legislation to compel top Department of Veterans Affairs officials to intervene and take over failing VA medical centers. It’s called the Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act, and it offers the VA new tools to turn around the worst of our health care centers and puts responsibility for doing so squarely on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The VA needs a team of leaders who are equipped both with the expertise to identify solutions and the authority to execute them. Under my bill, VA will recruit teams of the best managers and medical professionals that can rapidly deploy to failing medical centers to take over and take charge. These takeover teams would be managed through the newly-authorized Office of Failing Medical Centers and would have new legal tools needed to make a difference at each location.

The determination of a failing medical center will be based on data, not the Secretary’s whim or what media attention it is garnering. My bill sets up an automatic trigger that compels the VA to act under the law.

This is the anti-bureaucracy. This is the team no complacent VA employee wants to see coming because they know that the status quo is about to get shaken up. Just like at a failing school, this mechanism can serve as motivation to keep performance from dropping off.

The House has rightly acted to give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs broad authority under the VA Accountability Act. Now it’s time to require him to use it at our worst performing medical centers. That’s the intent of the Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance this legislation.

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