A first step, President Obama signs $16.3 VA bill

President Obama
President Obama

WASHINGTON, August 7, 2014 – Today President Obama signs a bill providing $16.3 billion dollars to emergency relief at the VA in response to the Veterans scandal. However with a history of bureaucracy and mismanagement, it will require more than money to fix the Veterans Administration, something the President alluded to in his remarks.

Speaking from Fort Belvoir, Virginia today, Obama first thanked Secretary Bob McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who is tasked with cleaning up the problems of the Veterans Administration.

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The President lauded the bi-partisan steps taken to bring the bill forward and also referenced the inexcusable conduct by Veterans Administration hospital managers, calling their actions wrong, outrageous.  “We have taken the first steps, holding people accountable for their actions,” he said continuing that it  “was vital that senior executives who failed to meet the needs of veterans, who used unethical practices in “cooking the books”,  “should be fired.”

The President said that urgent reforms, a critical cultural of accountability and rebuilding the executive management team are all important. He said that bill was to:

  • Improve care for traumatic brain image and victims of sexual assault
  • Resources the VA needs to more adequately care for Veterans
  • Money to rire more doctors, nurses, staff for clinics
  • Resources the VA needs to keep pace with the extraordinary number of veterans coming home

For vets who can’t get timely care, the bill will help them get the care they need someplace else, the President said, “If you live more than 40 miles from a facility, or you can’t be seen, you will have the ability to see a doctor outside the VA system.”

He further remarked that if you blow the whistle, speak up about mismanagement or care, you should be thanked, protected, not ignored and not punished.

The $16.3 billion bill the House and Senate, provides $10 billion to allow veterans who are unable to receive a timely appointment within the VA system to seek care from outside providers, $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more doctors and nurses to handle a greater caseload, and approximately $1.3 billion to finance leases for 27 new VA facilities across the country.

“I want to be clear about something: this will not and cannot be the end of our effort,” Mr. Obama said. “Implementing this law will take time. It is going to require focus on the part of all of us. And even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, particularly around wait lists and healthcare system, we can’t lose sight of our long term goals for our service members and our veterans.”

Saying that our obligation to vets does not end with their tour of duty, the President spoke of the issue of homeless vets, veteran’s families and children, and the efforts of Jill Biden and Michele Obama in assisting veterans seeking jobs.

The President was critical of a Senate that is not confirming his nominees for VA executive managers, Linda Schwartz, Constance Tobias, and Ellen Tierney.  He said, “As soon as the senate gets back in September the senate needs to act to put these persons in place and to work.”

Speaking of the sacrifices of service people on beaches of Normandy and today, Obama spoke in the direct and honest way of the importance of taking care of our Veterans.

He also spoke of General Harold J. Greene, killed in Afghanistan this week, and all the Gold Star families. He spoke of the 9/11 generation of service people that are the future of America business, politics and leaders. While gross mismanagement should be reason to fire any Federal employee, because of civil service laws and procedures, it is a difficult process.

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“Employees of the federal government in the process of a personnel action continue on the payroll of the federal government during the process of that action. So, (it’s) not a VA issue. It’s what the law is,” VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said.

A report by the Daily Caller details the lies and deaths that are being revealed as a result of investigations of The House Committee on Veterans Affairs chaired by Republican Rep. Jeff Miller.

An April 7, 2014 fact sheet provided to the committee shows cases of delays and preventable veteran deaths from a lack of appropriate gastrointestinal care, or one of many ailments ignored, over the last 15 years.

“As a result of the consult delay issue VA discovered at two of our medical centers, VHA continues to conduct a national review of consults across the system, which includes a review of all consults since 1999,” according to the fact sheet.

“During this review, VA looked at all open since 1999 to ensure that proper care has been administered to patients. Within this time frame over a quarter billion consults were requested in VA,” the fact sheet stated.

VA found 76 cases of delays and 24 deaths (up from its original count of 23) on gastrointestinal cases in its entire health care system, apparently since 1999.

“Based on findings from a system-wide review of high interest consults and new cases of gastrointestinal malignancy, VA identified 76 cases in our health care system for whom institutional disclosures were provided or attempted,” the fact sheet stated.

Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix veterans hospital at the center of the scandal remained on the agency’s payroll as of June 18, according to Washington Examiner writer Mark Flatten. Salt in the wounds of the vets and families is that Helman received a $9,345 performance bonus for the 2013 fiscal year.

Updated reports of who has been fired and who has resigned as a result of the scandal are not available. Hopefully now that the President has taken this next step, transparency from the VA and the White House to media will be forthcoming.

In Atlanta, where the death of at least three vets was linked to mismanagement, seven employees were “punished” and two retired. Reports are that five of those employees simply received a written reprimand and that VA director James Clark, who has retired, was able to keep more than $31,000 in bonuses paid.

Columbia, S.C. had six vets die while waiting for colonoscopies and screening tests for colorectal cancers.  No one was disciplined, though three managers resigned. In Pittsburgh five patient deaths were attributed to mismanagement, however director Terry Gerigk Wolf received a bonus of  $13,000 (2011) while regional medical director, overseeing Pittsburgh, Michael Moreland (retired) received a $63,000 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award bonus shortly after the Inspector General’s report was released.

Then VA under secretary of health Robert Petzel said it was not possible to recover Moreland’s bonus.

Moreland said the presidential award was to recognize his entire 30-year career at VA.

“The timing of it was very bad, and I understand the families that would look at that and make the connection and be upset about that,” Moreland said. “I received the award. I’m proud to have received it.”

Hopefully the President and Secretary Bob McDonald have already eliminated those performance bonus incentive programs.

The bill does give VA secretary McDonald the power to more directly manage personal, including firing, a move that Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) said should be an immediate change to the VA system.

“Congress must provide VA administrators with greater abilities to hire and fire those charged with caring for our veterans,” McCain said this spring.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned even as the Senate laid blame for failing to respond to Government Accountability Office reports and the VA’s own inspector general reports that detailed long wait times.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said that 2010 memo from inside the VA detailed the “gaming strategies” VA workers were using to manipulate wait time reporting.

That memo said, “These practices will not be tolerated.”

Before the investigative committee Shinseki said he was not aware of the memo, however Robert Petzel, VA Undersecretary of Health said he knew of it.

“If it’s not going to be tolerated, and over four years ago you had eight pages of known practices for gaming the system, what action if any — and I don’t think any took place — did the VA do to respond?” Isakson asked.

The bill is a positive step forward. However it does not address the families who lost loved one due to the wait lists and other atrocities are seeking criminal charges even as more bureaucrats sit at home, collecting pay while the firing process slowly works.

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