Reforming the Veterans Health Administration

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Washington, DC, June 24, 2014 | comments

The revelation of systemic mismanagement and corruption within the Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA) has been a shock to the entire country.

As a former Army soldier and a Marine Corps combat veteran, my proudest moment serving as a member of Congress was when Republicans and Democrats, on the House Veterans Committee, stood shoulder-to-shoulder on behalf of our nation’s veterans, and unanimously voted for a subpoena for the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Retired Army General Eric Shinseki. 

The subpoena requires the Secretary of the VA to turn over all written communications that could be tied to an alleged secret “waiting list” for sick veterans at the Phoenix Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA) hospital where a fraudulent system was used to show a reduction in veteran appointment wait times in order to secure financial rewards in the form of bonuses and promotions for the management at the hospital while critical patient care was being delayed.

Secretary Shinseki resigned shortly after the vote for the subpoena and my call for his resignation, most likely after he realized that the Democrats on the committee were not going to rise to his defense and that the President could not claim that the attacks against the VHA were “just another partisan attack.”  A nationwide audit found that these problems are systemic and are not isolated to the Phoenix hospital when a retired VHA physician recently went public with the scheme that ultimately cost the lives of some of our veterans by causing their care to be delayed.

     Two separate proposals have recently passed the House and the Senate to reform the VHA.  Both versions emphasize more resources, some personnel reforms, and have an option for Veterans to access private providers, reimbursed by the VA, based on the distance that a veteran lives from a VHA facility or if the time it takes to get an appointment is considered excessive. 

The personnel reforms envisioned by both bills only impact the ability to more easily hire and fire senior managers.  Neither bill would impact the vast majority of employees within the VHA who, unfortunately, will remain under a very cumbersome civil service system. 

What I’ve observed as the Chairman of the House VA Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee is that when misconduct occurs at a VHA facility no one is ever disciplined or fired even when a veteran has died from the result of gross negligence. In addition, unlike with private providers, it is very difficult for the family of a deceased veteran who has died from preventable circumstances to take the matter to court.

As the Chairman of the House VA Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee, I fully expect to be appointed to serve on the conference committee to negotiate the differences between the House and the Senate versions.  No doubt, there is a difference between the House and the Senate about whether or not the increased cost should be offset by reductions in other areas of the budget and that will be a significant point of contention and I will fight to reduce spending elsewhere so that these much needed reforms don’t further increase our national debt.

Creating a choice for our veterans will help improve the quality of their health care because the VHA will no longer take them for granted and will be forced to see our veterans as their customers.  If a given VHA facility continues to ignore the needs of our veterans then they will lose their “customers” to private providers and should subsequently be forced to close.

I believe that the majority of the employees, unlike much of the senior leadership at the VHA, are dedicated professionals who truly care about serving our nation’s veterans.  It is from the ranks of the men and women who work for the VHA who have had the courage to step forward as “whistleblowers,” despite too often being threatened with retaliation, that have allowed the country to understand that there is a very serious crisis of leadership within the VHA.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Mike Coffman
Brighton Standard Blade
June 23, 2014

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