In an election year, candidates for federal office bend over backwards to show their commitment to military veterans, making plenty of promises to win over this powerful voting bloc.
But promises are cheap, and it’s a good idea to look past the shiny campaign pledges to determine a candidate’s true commitment. Here’s a shortcut for weighing a candidate’s credibility on veterans issues: Does he or she truly support holding employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable for their performance?
Over the last few years, a series of VA scandals — falsified wait records concealing delayed treatment for thousands of veterans, poor sanitation practices that sickened patients, shoddy care, long backlogs for benefits — have exposed the grim reality of VA care.
In Colorado, we’ve seen how the toxic culture of VA dysfunction fails both veterans and taxpayers. Delayed care and scheduling fraud has led to worse health outcomes and even death for an untold number of Colorado veterans. At the Denver VA hospital alone, more than 3,000 health care appointments have been delayed longer than 30 days, and longer than two months for thousands more.
Meanwhile, the construction of the Veterans Medical Center in Aurora, which ran years behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget, stands as a legendary example of mismanagement and waste. In a telling exchange, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson dismissed questions about the $1 billion overrun, saying, “You’re not going to find a dollar-by-dollar account.”
Despite this record, virtually no VA employees have faced consequences for failure. In many cases, poor performing employees are even rewarded with promotions and bonuses in spite of their failures — a sure sign of twisted incentives and corrupt management.
The VA Accountability Act before Congress is a bipartisan solution to address the VA’s dysfunctional personnel policies. This bill, which empowers the VA secretary to swiftly remove workers for cause in cases of incompetence, mismanagement, and misconduct, is a long overdue remedy to the department’s bureaucratic malfeasance.
The bill passed the House of Representatives last summer by a significant bipartisan majority. Unfortunately, what should be a bipartisan no-brainer has gotten tied up in partisan politics in the Senate.
Why would a lawmaker oppose a common-sense reform for a famously failing agency? Because the government unions that stand in the way of reform — and provide big campaign contributions primarily to Democrats — don’t like the idea of tougher accountability for government workers.
What might break the logjam? It would help if supporters in the current Congress would push for action on the VA Accountability now, rather than waiting until next year.
In an election year, it’s assumed Congress won’t do much in the way of passing significant legislation. But the reality is that an election year is the best time to try to achieve results, so that voters can get a clear sense of where candidates stand on the issues — not just what they’ll promise to do if elected.
By forcing the issue on VA accountability, congressional leaders can make it clear who stands with our veterans, and who stands with the unelected bureaucrats who have run the veterans’ care system into the ground.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat running for reelection this year, could send a clear signal of solidarity to the veterans’ community by urging such action and lending his support to passing the VA Accountability Act. Veterans and their families should let Bennett and other lawmakers know we want change at the VA, and we need them to stand with us to get that result.
The reality is there are many outstanding professionals within the VA who are deeply committed to getting the best results for veterans. Unfortunately, too often their efforts are undermined by employees who fail to perform and exploit their positions for personal gain. Greater accountability will encourage and empower the best employees.
The VA budget grew by a staggering 68 percent since 2009, yet the department’s performance has only worsened. Clearly, the VA doesn’t need another massive infusion of taxpayer dollars — it needs a new business model centered on results, and that puts veterans back at the center of the VA mission. That begins with strengthening accountability for the workforce.
The status quo at the VA is not acceptable. Colorado veterans should urge their elected officials to take action on the VA Accountability Act now — and make it clear that candidates who stand with bureaucrats over veterans will pay a price at the polls.