The VA needs to be overhauled - for real

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Sen. Marco Rubio is sponsoring a bill to reform the Veterans Administration.
Sen. Marco Rubio is sponsoring a bill to reform the Veterans Administration. AP

With the presidential election behind us, and fresh from marking Veterans Day, Congress will have a chance to make a major reform to the Veterans Administration.

A bill passed with a veto-proof bipartisan majority in the House will be ready for the Senate. And a sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate is Miami’s own Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from the Florida Panhandle and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, described the key elements of the legislation. The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act will:

▪  Shorten the firing-demotion-appeals process for VA employees from more than a year on average to about 75 days.

▪  Remove the Merit Systems Protection Board from the firing-demotion-appeals process for VA senior executives. Civil service protection for high-level appointees makes no sense.

▪  Provide VA whistleblowers more protection from reprisals and enact strict action on those who wage reprisals against them.

▪  Give the VA secretary the authority to take back bonuses and relocation expenses from misbehaving employees. Why is this even needed? It’s another example of a corrupted culture that protects the bureaucracy.

▪  Perhaps most important, reform the agency’s broken disability benefits appeal process. Veterans need timely responses to their disability appeals. Congress keeps appropriating money to the VA, but the agency always needs more. It’s time to demand accountability.

All of these actions are needed because the VA has proved time and again to have all the worst characteristics of a bureaucracy: Protection of the status quo at any cost with passive-aggressive tactics. An iron triangle of special interests has prevented real reform to an agency with 340,000 employees and a $160 billion budget; public sector unions that oppose any private sector options; and some veterans service organizations that sometimes serve as gatekeepers for care of veterans.

Warnings of long waiting times and other abuses have been continuing for about a decade by the VA’s Office of Inspector General, and still no real action has been taken until recently.

But here’s the real problem within the VA, Rep. Miller said: “the VA almost guarantees employment for government bureaucrats no matter how egregious their behavior.”

VA’s former top benefits executive said that a maze of red tape makes it almost impossible to discipline employees. There’s the case of an employee who kept her job after participating in an armed robbery. The rationale: It occurred on her free time.

In another case, a VA executive received $64,000 in bonuses despite overseeing four VA construction projects that ran $2 billion over budget; a regional director received $100,000 in bonuses though six veterans died as a result of Legionnaire’s disease on his watch and a former chief of staff received a bonus four months before he was fired. Clearly at the VA, bonuses have become a kind of entitlement.

The bottom line is that veterans have had to deal with too many “deadwood employees.” This new legislation can help to fix it, but it likely won’t be enough because the bureaucracy and the unions work tirelessly to protect the status quo.

The VA needs to be downsized into specialized care for veteran-related issues. It needs to be improved and modernized.

This editorial first appeared in The Florida Times-Union.