Sec­re­tary: Vet­er­ans Af­fairs ‘still in crit­i­cal con­di­tion’

Wait too long; staff can’t be dis­ci­plined

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY S. A. MILLER

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin said Wed­nes­day that the VA is “still in crit­i­cal con­di­tion” with pa­tients wait­ing too long for ser­vices and a bu­reau­cracy un­able to fire poorly per­form­ing em­ploy­ees.

Mr. Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in Pres­i­dent Trump’s Cabi­net, urged Congress to give the agency more power to dis­ci­pline em­ploy­ees and ex­pand the Vet­er­ans Choice pro­gram that al­lows vets to get treat­ment from pri­vate-sec­tor doc­tors and hos­pi­tals.

Cur­rent rules pre­vent the VA from sus­pend­ing or fir­ing em­ploy­ees in a timely man­ner, in­clud­ing a re­cent case where it took more than a month to fire a psy­chi­a­trist caught watch­ing pornog­ra­phy on his iPad while see­ing a vet­eran.

“Our ac­count­abil­ity pro­cesses are clearly bro­ken,” said Mr. Shulkin, a physi­cian.

In the “State of the VA” re­port, the sec­re­tary listed 13 ar­eas where the agency needs to be over­hauled, in­clud­ing re­fur­bish­ing un­der­uti­lized fa­cil­i­ties, out­sourc­ing IT and ad­dress­ing vet­eran sui­cides.

Sui­cide claims the lives of 20 vet­er­ans ev­ery day and pre­vent­ing it was a top clin­i­cal pri­or­ity for Mr. Shulkin.

“This is a na­tional pub­lic health cri­sis, and it re­quires so­lu­tion that not only V.A. will work on, but all of govern­ment and other part­ner­ships in the pri­vate sec­tor,” he said.

The VA plans to launch a new ini­tia­tive called “Get­ting to Zero” this sum­mer seek­ing to end vet­eran sui­cides.

Mr. Trump’s bud­get pro­posed boost­ing fund­ing for the VA by 3.7 per­cent, with most of the money for health­care and $29 mil­lion specif­i­cally for the Choice pro­gram over the next decade.

Mr. Shulkin said the bud­get was suf­fi­cient to cover need im­prove­ment. “The prob­lems in VA are not largely go­ing to be solved through ad­di­tional money. These are go­ing to be solved through man­age­ment prac­tices, fo­cus, and some leg­isla­tive changes,” he said.

Rep. Phil Roe, chair­man of the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, com­mended Mr. Schulkin for the “hon­est as­sess­ment” of the agency and for reaf­firm­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to build­ing a bet­ter VA.

The Ten­nessee Repub­li­can said the com­mit­tee stood ready to con­tinue work­ing with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to “bring whole­sale re­form to the depart­ment.”

A pat­tern of neg­li­gent and mis­treat­ment at VA hos­pi­tals came to light in 2014. A re­port by CNN found that at least 40 vet­er­ans died while on long wait­ing lists for care at the fa­cil­ity in Phoenix, Ari­zona.

More prob­lems emerged at fa­cil­i­ties across the coun­try, in­clud­ing se­cret wait­ing lists that were kept hid­den by ex­ec­u­tives in or­der to col­lect bonus pay.

The Vet­er­ans Choice Pro­gram was cre­ated in re­sponse. The pro­gram, how­ever, was op­posed by Democrats who called it an at­tempt to pri­va­tize the VA. Mr. Trump last month signed into law a bill that ex­tends the pro­gram.

Mr. Shulkin also cred­ited the pres­i­dent with tak­ing ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion to cre­ate a VA Of­fice of Ac­count­abil­ity and Whistle­blower Pro­tec­tion, which re­ported di­rectly to the sec­re­tary.

“But that isn’t enough,” said Mr. Shulkin. “We need new ac­count­abil­ity leg­is­la­tion and we need that now.”

The ef­fort to clean house at the VA have been thwarted by judges and the fed­eral Merit Sys­tems Pro­tec­tion Board that in many cases re­in­state fired em­ploy­ees.

A re­cent ex­am­ple that grabbed head­lines was the re­in­state­ment this month of a no­to­ri­ous di­rec­tor of a VA hos­pi­tal in Puerto Ricco, DeWayne Ham­lin, who was fired on Mr Trump’s first day in of­fice.

Mr. Ham­lin’s of­fenses in­cluded at­tempt­ing to fire a whistle­blower who alerted of­fi­cials to his ar­rest for in­tox­i­cated driv­ing, pos­ses­sion of painkillers pre­scribed to some­one else and at­tempt­ing to bribe an­other em­ployee to help fire the whistle­blower.

Mr. Shulkin said he sup­ported due process for em­ploy­ees but that he, as sec­re­tary, needs greater author­ity to en­force dis­ci­plinary mea­sures, as pro­vided in ac­count­abil­ity leg­is­la­tion now work­ing its way through Congress.

The House passed the bill that would make it eas­ier to fire bad VA em­ploy­ees. The Se­nate has yet to act.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin said “ac­count­abil­ity pro­cesses are clearly bro­ken” as VA is pre­vented from sus­pend­ing or fir­ing em­ploy­ees in a timely man­ner.

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