A leading veterans group is hailing two key provisions of the proposed Veterans Affairs reform bill as critical to improving care for our nation’s heroes but warns that spending needs to be controlled and oversight must be even more intense to make sure positive changes are really happening.
A spokesman for the group also tells WND the director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System – which made headlines when 40 veterans died while reportedly waiting for appointments – is still on the federal payroll with an annual salary of $170,000.
Over the weekend, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., announced they agreed on a framework for reforms to accelerate care for veterans and address the bureaucratic mess that led to veterans waiting months or even years to see a doctor.
The plan would cost a minimum of $17 billion. The majority of that money would be set aside for veterans to seek medical care outside of the VA system if they cannot get an appointment within the promised window of 14 days. In addition, the bill contains the major GOP priority of granting the secretary of Veterans’ Affairs the power to fire bureaucrats who are simply not doing their jobs.
“The two principles, particularly the expanded firing authority and the expanded access to private care are the two most important reforms in this bill. We feel they will lay the groundwork for future VA reform in fundamentally transforming how the VA delivers care and benefits to our veterans,” said Dan Caldwell, issues and legislative campaign manager at Concerned Veterans for America.
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Dan Caldwell:
While he believes both of those components are essential to any meaningful reform, Caldwell said the greater choice in health-care options for veterans is the most important reform.
"We think that allowing veterans more health-care choices will improve their overall well-being, will get veterans out of this failing single-payer health-care system at the VA and ultimately reduce wait time," said Caldwell, who believes transferring more and more of veterans' medical needs to the private sector is a worthy goal.
"We think that a lot of these health-care services, particularly on the primary care front, could probably be better served within the private sector at a family doctor or primary care physician. We don't think this is really a mission change from what VA's original intent was. We think this was a mission intent change from where the VA's mission has expanded in recent decades," he said.
Concerned Veterans for America is also cheering the plan to give more latitude to the secretary of Veterans' Affairs to remove personnel at the upper levels for incompetence or nonperformance. It's a power he hopes the incoming secretary will use widely.
"You'll probably have fire thousands of managers throughout the VA," Caldwell said. "The rot at that institution is just so widespread. It is just so ingrained, culturally, within that institution that you're going to need to remove a lot of people from the VA and then fundamentally transform the culture."
Sen. Sanders insisted on including a 21-day window for any dismissed employees to challenge their firing. Caldwell said this will make it harder to clean house and that problem is already taking shape.
"What you're seeing often with these employees is that it takes two years to fire someone. We're not talking about low-level employees. We're talking about senior managers. It should be very easy to remove those people from their positions," he said, noting the problem removing one of the most infamous people associated with this scandal.
"Out in Phoenix, Arizona, where the scandal broke, Sharon Helman is the hospital director that was responsible directly or indirectly for the deaths of up to 40 veterans as the result of manipulated wait lists. The process to fire her began the day (former Veterans' Affairs Secretary Gen. Eric) Shinseki resigned. She's still on the payroll," Caldwell said.
"Two other people that started to be fired are still on the payroll. They've been receiving pay now for close to two months as employees of the VA. They're going to drag it out as long as they can because they have the incentive to. I think that this new accountability reform will remove that attempt to drag it out, said Caldwell, noting that government unions will likely challenge the new policy but ultimately lose in court."
Caldwell said Concerned Veterans for America is very worried about the spending associated with the legislation, not only the amounts designated for the key reforms but also for what he considers unnecessary add-ons. Ultimately, he said there will need to be very close oversight from Congress, the media and many others because the VA still hasn't learned its lessons.
"They're still not being forthcoming with Congress. They're not being forthcoming with the media," he said. "They're not providing requested information. The VA conference committee needed detailed accounting information from the VA to give to the Congressional Budget Office. The VA gave them complete information. It's going to require a lot of continued focus ... to make sure this organization is transformed."