I sat a few rows behind General Eric Shinseki as he testified in front of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs a few weeks ago and listened to him dodge every question that came his way about the people who died on his watch. His fabricated outrage (“I’m mad as hell”) and inability to articulate what is actually wrong at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) was more than disappointing—it was infuriating. I hate to say it, but when you either naively or willingly ignore the problems that plague the department that you are in charge of for over five years, you clearly aren’t fit for such high office.
Imagine if you had a family member who utilized the VA healthcare system, only to get told there are no available appointments, put on a secret wait list, and ultimately die as a result of its deceitful practices and mismanagement. That is what happened to more than 40 veterans at a Phoenix VA facility. But it’s not just happening in Phoenix. Whistleblowers around the country are coming forward with new claims of ghost clinics, secret wait lists, cooking the books, and gaming the system. This type of unethical culture within the VA has been persistent throughout Shinseki’s time as secretary.
That’s why I took the announcement of Shinseki’s resignation on Friday as good news for veterans. But that is merely the first of many steps needed to put the VA back on track. The next step is replacing Shinseki with the right man for the job.
Another Obama yes-man is not going to cut it. Not when the VA system is plagued with corruption, and include deceitful—and possibly criminally so—managers. That type of dysfunctional culture cannot change overnight. It cannot be fixed with a new department head who just wants to weather this media cycle, then will return to looking the other way and enjoying the perks of being in President Obama’s inner circle. If that is to be the case, we may have well have kept Shinseki.
Wanted: A Reformer
The VA needs a reformer. It needs a visionary who isn’t afraid to make some waves, someone who will cut the red tape that is smothering the agency and preventing needed changes. The new secretary must rapidly clean house, especially firing those top-level managers who have long been in their positions and failed to discharge their duties.
To do so, Congress must pass the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014. It has already passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives in a rare showcase of bipartisan support. Now it is up to the Senate to make VA reform a reality. It is a common0sense solution that will allow the new VA secretary to have the authority to actually fire top-level executives who are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. The secretary can then bring in new leadership who will focus on real accountability and oversight.
The VA also needs to be brought into the 21st century and make its paper claims system becomes a digital one. That was supposed to occur under Shinseki, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, never did.
The new secretary must tackle these obstacles aggressively and relentlessly. Being the new leader of the VA won’t be easy, and fixing its system-wide problems will be even harder. Yet positive change ought to be achievable. It will take a leader who is open to significant and real change, including exploring private health care options for veterans.
Give Vets Medical Freedom
This leader needs to recall the purpose of the VA: It is supposed to serve veterans, not exist for its own sake or limits the services veterans can receive. It’s time to give veterans health care choices. If they are not getting good service from their local VA facilities, they should be able to go elsewhere. In other areas of life, we take for granted that free markets and competition work to provide better services more efficiently. There is no reason this doesn’t hold true for veterans’ medical care. If the VA suddenly had to compete for patients (veterans), it would probably start being significantly more efficient and offering higher-quality care.
That will be a tough change for anyone in the Obama administration, given its focus on proving that government-run health care is good for America. They don’t like the stark reminder this VA scandal has given Americans: All veterans who qualify for VA health care may have insurance coverage, but that doesn’t mean all veterans are receiving care. Sadly, this is also the case for too many of the newly-insured through ObamaCare.
Yet if the administration is serious about wanting to improve health care for veterans, they’ll look beyond these politics and appoint a reformer who is ready to tackle the VA head-on and is unafraid to get his hands dirty. This appointment will tell us whether Obama cares more about his self-image and the politics surrounding his legacy, or the veterans who have served this nation honorably and only now want a safe VA that has their best health and welfare in mind.
I’m not holding my breath for a positive outcome, and I have a feeling that a lot of other veterans who have experienced the VA healthcare system aren’t, either.
Amber Barno is a national security senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and military advisor for Concerned Veterans for America. She is a former Army helicopter pilot with combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.