No short-term fix to VA scandal, says committee chairman

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

The top authority on veteran care in the House of Representatives says problems engulfing the Department of Veterans Affairs will outlive his tenure, but laying the groundwork for change is a job he’s looking to take on with Secretary Bob McDonald.

In Depth host Francis Rose interviews Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in his Capitol Hill office. (Photo by Tim Mantegna)

“The secretary is a person that truly wants to change the direction and the model at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. “The problems that exist at VA did not occur overnight, nor are they going to be resolved in a very short period of time. We’re talking about decades of a culture that has absolutely calcified within the agency, and people are extremely reluctant to change the way they do things, even if it’s wrong.”

It’s unlikely, however, that McDonald will continue to serve as the VA head long after the end of President Barack Obama’s term. His predecessor, Eric Shinseki, served for five years before resigning.

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That lack of long-term leadership, Miller said, has led to the VA being set in its ways — even on issues that need addressing.

“If they can kick the ball down the field and keep the focus away from the problems, then they can restart the clock all over again,” Miller said. “But I believe that now there has been enough sunlight that has shined upon this agency and enough people around this country understand that it has to change. And the only way it’s going to change is through transparency and accountability — that regardless of when I’m no longer chairman, the next person that comes in is going to be pushing just as hard as I did.”

Part of the problem, Miller said, is that VA employees have been less than forthcoming with information.

“Truthful transparency is, I think, the critical thing that we must discuss. And while VA was coming to our committee through their testimony and saying certain things, it was very obvious from the background information that we were able to gather that it was not as complete, nor was it as truthful as it should have been,” Miller said. “There are those who are experts at sleight of hand when it comes to numbers, and for years we have relied on what the VA has given us as a Congress. And finally, we had some whistleblowers that came forward that helped us corroborate the fact that these numbers, especially the wait times that exist out there were systemic as the [inspector general] found. I have problems with the way the VA is framing the disability claims process and the progress that they say they have made. Veterans are still waiting inordinate amounts of time in order to have their claims adjudicated.”

Miller said statistics reported by the VA don’t always mean veterans are receiving the benefits they need.

“The VA is focused particularly on the backlog within the agency, not necessarily the backlog as it relates to an individual veteran. Once the department has adjudicated that claim and the veteran appeals, it is no longer considered a backlogged claim; however, veterans are still waiting. And the VA, no matter how hard you try to pin them down on that, they won’t acknowledge that fact,” Miller said. “They’ll say that our backlog has decreased and it actually on paper it has. But when you ask a group of veterans in a room how many of them are still waiting over 120 days [for their benefits], virtually all of their hands go up.”

When it comes to reforming the workforce at VA, Miller said employees shouldn’t feel stigmatized for reporting wrongdoing.

“We just need to be honest and say that there are a tremendous number of claims that are coming in. Yes, they’re more complicated, but it’s not like they didn’t know that that was going to be the case. They have just got to get better at how they do it and how they report it. And if they need more people, then justify the fact that you need more people to do this,” Miller said. “I don’t want the people who are on the line, looking at the claims and making the decisions to feel like that they’re the bad guy, because they are trying to do their job. What I want the department to be able to do is to hold people accountable that are not doing the right thing, and that’s the thing that is the most difficult within the agency to change.”

Miller said legislation making it easier to fire Senior Executive Service employees at VA is a step in the right direction, but went on to say that he’s disappointed that former Sharon Helman, the former director for a VA facility in Phoenix, was not fired over mishandling patient care. She was instead fired over accepting more than $13,000 in gifts.

“When somebody was very clearly manipulating data, was allowing other people to do the same thing, those people don’t need to be rewarded as they had been with bonuses and promotions. They need to receive discipline. Does that necessarily mean fire? I mean, you could demote or put them in another position. But the modus operandi for VA in the past decade has been to transfer people who are problem employees,” Miller said.

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