Lawmakers Vow Not to Miss 'Opportunity of a Lifetime' to Reform the VA

By Eric Katz

June 12, 2014

Lawmakers with oversight of the Veterans Affairs Department voiced at a House hearing on Thursday their desire to use the recent scandal as an opportunity to overhaul the agency.

Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee heard from private-sector medical experts, as well as a top-level VA executive, to reflect on proposals and solicit suggestions on how to improve the reeling agency. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the current appetite for change presents the “opportunity of a lifetime” to institute reforms.

“It will take more than the Band-Aid fixes that VA has proposed so far,” Miller said. VA needs a “wholesale systematic overhaul,” to include holding senior management accountable. Miller sponsored the House-backed VA Management Accountability Act, which would make it easier for VA to fire its Senior Executive Service employees.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the committee’s ranking member, echoed Miller’s tone.

“The bureaucracy has lost its way and its focus,” he said. “The time might be now to effect big changes that would put the focus back on veterans and away from a culture of complacency.”

Many committee members, Michaud included, took pains to praise the “vast majority of VA employees.” Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said she did not “want the men and women of the VA to be discouraged” because they were “working in a system that was doomed for failure.” 

Betsy McCaughey, chairwoman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a witness at the hearing, blamed many of the problems facing VA on “union rules,” pointing specifically to a collective bargaining agreement between the agency and the American Federation of Government Employees. She accused the Senate-backed McCain-Sanders bill of being “designed to protect unions, not veterans.” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., rejected this notion, and said McCaughey was not moving the conversation forward.

Other private-sector witnesses said the problems stemmed from a systemic aversion to embracing change.

“The focus has gone off veterans and toward preserving the current system,” said Tim McClain, president of Humana Government Business and the former VA general counsel. He added that most employee and agency metrics are “process oriented,” rather than “outcome oriented.” Focusing on outputs rather than inputs would help improve performance, he said.

All the witnesses, including newly appointed VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Jesse, supported increasing standardization across VA facilities. VA is not just using the wrong performance metrics, they said, but tracking too many of them across its network of hospitals.

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said he has recently heard from VA employees who were told by their superiors not to speak to members of Congress, discouraged from “rocking the boat” by bringing problems up the ladder and threatened with retribution for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. Jesse was taken aback by the accusations and said if true, they would violate of series of VA policies.

He also said if any employees were proven to be manipulating data to mitigate the appearance of extended waits for veterans to receive care, “there will be consequences.”

He added, however: “I’m not a lawyer. I can’t tell you what those will be.” 

By Eric Katz

June 12, 2014