Coffman Pens Letter to Trump on the Direction of the VA
As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and as a combat veteran, it is no secret that I am passionate about our nation’s obligation to provide the care and benefits that our veterans have earned through their service to our country. Today, I do not believe that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is meeting this solemn obligation. The time to clean up the VA is now.
The prior administration systematically hid a culture of bureaucratic incompetence that has plagued senior leadership at the VA. Rather than fixing issues, past VA leaders advanced a false narrative that everything was just fine, when nothing could have been further from the truth. As failure after failure became public, past leadership, including former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, did little more than “rearrange the deck chairs” without fixing problems. This led me to publicly call for Shulkin’s firing. I applaud your decision to let him go. Our veterans deserve better.
In 2014, Congress enacted the ‘Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act’, which included a provision authorizing the VA Secretary to fire senior level managers, without all of the civil service red tape. Neither former Secretaries Shulkin nor McDonald used this authority to clean house, despite repeated reports of failure documented by Government Accountability Office (GAO) and VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) reports.
For example, in Aurora, Colorado we have the dubious distinction of witnessing the greatest construction management failure in the history of the VA. Construction of our new VA hospital is five years behind schedule and will ultimately cost triple the original estimate to complete – with over a billion dollars in cost overruns. Finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the project in 2015, following successful litigation by the general contractor against the VA for breach of contract, as a condition for resuming work. Suddenly, budget overruns ceased and a revised construction schedule was met. The new hospital will open by the end of this summer and provide veterans in the Rocky Mountain region the much-needed medical care they’ve earned.
Sadly, the massive failure of the VA’s construction management team in Aurora was not exceptional. The VA’s inability to complete major hospital construction projects on time and on budget was fully identified as early as April of 2013. At that time, a GAO report showed that the three prior hospital construction projects in Las Vegas, Nevada; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Orlando, Florida were all hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. If the culture of the VA was truly focused on competently serving our veterans, the VA Secretary in 2013, at the very latest, should have addressed the ongoing incompetence in the VA’s Office of Construction Management. Yet again, it did nothing.
Amazingly, Stella S. Fiotes, named in January 2013 as Executive Director for the Office of Construction and Facilities Management at the VA, did nothing to improve failing construction management practices at the VA, she actively covered up its failures, gave false testimony to Congressional oversight committees, and is still at the VA. Not only is she still there, but she was about to be promoted to an even more senior position within the VA, until I found out about it and challenged the VA on doing so. The VA, with an annual budget of nearly $200 billion, should not have incompetent leaders at the top. The need to clean house now is clear.
This is only one example among too many of a VA culture that tolerates incompetence and bureaucratic inertia. As you consider potential nominees to serve as the next VA Secretary, I urge you to select someone who prepared to overhaul the department’s senior level staffing – eliminating or ‘cleaning house’ of those who have failed to cost-effectively deliver the care our veterans deserve. No one at the Senior Executive Service level with unresolved documented failures, identified by either the GAO or VAOIG, should be allowed to stay.
It’s time for actions, not words. Please select a new secretary who will ensure the VA delivers for our veterans.
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