With Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson withdrawing his name from consideration to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, even the Trump administration is admitting things are unraveling at the federal government’s second largest agency.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, before Jackson announced his withdrawal, VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said the “main goal” of the department under acting Secretary Robert Wilkie was to “restore regular order” at VA. The department’s rank and file agreed VA is suffering from uncertainty in leadership, as did an array of veterans service organizations.
Even Gene Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office, flagged the issue in an unrelated congressional hearing on Thursday. “They need leadership,” Dodaro told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I'm very worried about the Veterans Administration. They have some of the most entrenched management problems in the federal government.”
Denise Rohan, the American Legion’s national commander, which represents 2 million veterans, said VA could right its ship if it had the proper leadership in place.
“The American Legion is very concerned about the current lack of permanent leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Rohan said. “While the VA is the nation’s second largest bureaucracy with a budget of $200 billion and more than 350,000 employees, we believe it is entirely manageable and effective when staffed with motivated, experienced and competent people.”
Joe Chenelly, national executive director for AMVETS, said the botched nomination of Jackson is just “the latest in a chain of unforced errors for which veterans are continuing to pay the price.”
“Veterans are losing six different ways right now, from all directions, and it’s discouragingly unclear why this keeps happening or what might make it stop,” Chenelly said. He added there is “nothing but downside for veterans in prolonging the uncertain period between permanent secretaries.”
P.J. Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said VA has entered an “unprecedented time of chaos,” and the issue was trickling down to VA employees. “VA’s reputation is damaged, staff is demoralized, momentum is stalled and the future is shockingly unclear,” Rieckhoff said.
Marilyn Park, a legislative representative at American Federation of Government Employees’ VA council, which represents 230,000 VA workers, said the leadership tumult has exacerbated problems caused by a high number of vacancies.
“VA has been in acting mode in almost every single position for a very long time,” Park said, “and that certainly speaks to not making any new changes when the permanency of the leadership is worse than ever.”
The department is facing important deadlines in the coming weeks, such as the popular Veterans Choice Program likely running out of funding in early June. The program enables veterans who face delays in receiving health care at a VA facility or live far from one to access private sector care on the department’s dime. VA and the White House had hoped to use the deadline as a marker for Congress to pass more comprehensive reforms to the programs VA runs to give veterans access to private care, but those plans could be scuttled without leadership in place at the department.
“You’ve got a deal that’s been brokered between the House and the Senate already, and the White House,” said Darin Selnick, who served as the White House’s top VA policy person until earlier this month.
Democrats balked at the 11th hour to putting that framework into the recently signed omnibus spending deal, and will likely remain skittish about enacting the legislation until a permanent leader is installed at VA and assauges any lingering concerns about the changes being a first step toward privatizing veterans health care. Cashour said VA would like to see “community care reform legislation” passed by Memorial Day.
“Why not give it one last shot of money, fix it, and be done with it?” Selnick said.
To Park, however, the authority provided to VA management in that bill should not be awarded to a yet-to-be-named secretary. The agreement, which has been brokered largely by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., the leaders on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, would provide the VA secretary with more latitude in determining which veterans are eligible for private care at the government’s expense.
“It adds to the uncertainty of adding these very broad tools of authority when we don’t even know who will be carrying them out,” Park said. “It’s very troubling.” She said AFGE is encouraging Congress to “take a pause” and wait for VA to have “a more stable leadership situation” before proceeding with sweeping reforms.
According to Cashour, things at VA are already improving since Shulkin’s ouster. Under acting Secretary Wilkie, who is temporarily leading VA after being confirmed as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Cashour said VA officials are “on the same page” and “speaking with one voice” on behalf of veterans, employees, Congress and outside groups. That process has been aided by the removal of dissident employees, he explained, and will enable the department to better implement Trump’s agenda.
“In a number of cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change have now departed VA,” Cashour said.
Many of the veterans groups do not hold the same view.
“It was a mistake to fire [former secretary] David Shulkin to start, neutralizing the progress he was making at VA for those who depend on it with their lives,” said AMVETS’ Chenelly. “That mistake hurt veterans and continues to work against the administration.” He added that veterans “deserve and need a stable VA with leaders properly vetted and confirmed.”
The Legion’s Rohan also said things had been trending in a positive direction.
“The VA has made significant improvements in modernizing and realigning the department since 2014 and was headed in the right direction under the past two incumbents,” Rohan said. “Our nation’s veterans deserve a strong, competent and experienced secretary to lead this vitally important department.”
IAVA’s Rieckhoff said VA needs a secretary who can usher the department out of its current situation.
“Our veterans are simply looking for a competent, proven and dynamic leader with integrity that can lead our nation forward out of this storm of darkness and into a brighter future,” Rieckhoff said.