Vet­er­ans Af­fairs faces tur­moil again

Fir­ing of deputy sec­re­tary lat­est in string of in­ci­dents

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Jen­nifer Stein­hauer

WASH­ING­TON — As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump en­ters his re­elec­tion year, his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on the na­tion’s vet­er­ans has emerged as a cen­ter­piece of the cam­paign. But the agency tasked with caring for more than 9 mil­lion for­mer ser­vice mem­bers, a depart­ment he claims to have trans­formed, is show­ing signs of dis­ar­ray.

The mys­te­ri­ous fir­ing this month of the deputy sec­re­tary of vet­er­ans af­fairs was only the lat­est in a string of in­ci­dents that have shaken the sec­ond-largest Cab­i­net agency in the gov­ern­ment as it em­barks on am­bi­tious changes to vet­er­ans health care.

The depart­ment’s sec­re­tary, Robert Wilkie, got into an un­usual pub­lic con­fronta­tion last month with a se­nior House pol­icy ad­viser on fe­male vet­er­ans is­sues who said she was sex­u­ally as­saulted at the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hospi­tal in Wash­ing­ton. That led the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee to file a com­plaint with the depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, charg­ing that Wilkie tried to dig up dirt on the woman, a for­mer reserve Navy in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer. Last fall, that same in­spec­tor gen­eral re­ported that a new of­fice formed to pro­tect whistle­blow­ers of­ten re­tal­i­ated against them in­stead.

A health pro­gram cen­tral to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion of care out­side the depart­ment’s health fa­cil­i­ties, known as the Mis­sion Act, has hit snags right out of the gate. Con­gres­sional of­fi­cials were told that mil­lions of dol­lars more would prob­a­bly be needed to meet the plan’s cov­er­age goals. Depart­ment of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted to law­mak­ers that they had no clue how much the out­side care was cost­ing or how many were seek­ing it.

Fi­nally, a $16 bil­lion over­haul of the vet­er­ans med­i­cal records sys­tem has been de­layed amid tech­ni­cal and train­ing glitches.

Sev­eral who work in­side or closely with the depart­ment at­trib­uted some of the is­sues to Wilkie’s inat­ten­tion to the her­culean tasks he was sup­posed to carry out at the long-trou­bled depart­ment, as he is seen to be lob­by­ing for other jobs in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, most no­tably sec­re­tary of de­fense, or pon­ders an even­tual ca­reer in politics.

The per­pet­ual tur­moil has agi­tated mem­bers of vet­er­ans’ ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions, which have sparred with Wilkie as their in­flu­ence has waned.

“There is a lead­er­ship chal­lenge go­ing on over there,” said Randy Reese, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of

Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans. “The fault of not chang­ing the cul­ture rests on his desk.”

More omi­nous for Wilkie is the in­creas­ing im­pa­tience at Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, a con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion with sub­stan­tial back­ing from the bil­lion­aire Charles Koch that has had enor­mous in­flu­ence on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s vet­er­ans poli­cies. That in­flu­ence is es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in the new pro­gram al­low­ing vet­er­ans to seek health care out­side the depart­ment’s tra­di­tional med­i­cal cen­ters.

Lead­ers of Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, like many cur­rent and for­mer Vet­er­ans Depart­ment of­fi­cials, fear the prob­lems could presage the re­turn to a dark era when inat­ten­tion to vet­er­ans’ health care led to scan­dals and tragedies.

“We are go­ing to be re­ally watch­ing over the next six months,” said Dan Cald­well, the group’s se­nior ad­viser and for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. The or­ga­ni­za­tion was in­stru­men­tal in oust­ing the last sec­re­tary, David Shulkin, who was dis­missed in 2018 by pres­i­den­tial tweet.

While the depart­ment is sec­ond only to the De­fense Depart­ment in size and bud­get, it op­er­ates with far less over­sight of its spend­ing and ac­tiv­i­ties. And while the mis­sion of the Pen­tagon is higher in pro­file, law­mak­ers are loath to cut ser­vices for vet­er­ans or lose fa­cil­i­ties in their districts, and they rarely sug­gest cuts to the depart­ment, re­gard­less of its in­ef­fi­cien­cies or prob­lems.

The depart­ment has suf­fered decades of scan­dals, and in 2014 in­ves­ti­ga­tors found pa­tients wait­ing an aver­age of 115 days for ap­point­ments at the Phoenix med­i­cal cen­ter, where work­ers fraud­u­lently re­ported far shorter waits. The depart­ment has sub­se­quently en­dured a va­ri­ety of intrigue and po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing and has had four sec­re­taries over five years.

Last fall, An­drea Goldstein, a Navy vet­eran and the se­nior pol­icy ad­viser for the Women Vet­er­ans Task Force on the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, told The New York Times that she was as­saulted while buy­ing a snack at the med­i­cal cen­ter’s cafe­te­ria in Wash­ing­ton. Af­ter in­ves­ti­gat­ing, the vet­er­ans depart­ment’s Of­fice of In­spec­tor Gen­eral de­clined to bring charges.

Wilkie, against the ad­vice of his staff, three peo­ple said, then sent a let­ter to Rep. Mark Takano of Cal­i­for­nia, the com­mit­tee’s chair­man, de­nounc­ing the claim as “un­sub­stan­ti­ated” and chastis­ing Takano for bring­ing it to the fore.

In an un­usual re­buke, Michael Missal, the in­spec­tor gen­eral, wrote to Wilkie to say that char­ac­ter­iz­ing Goldstein’s al­le­ga­tion as un­sub­stan­ti­ated was in­cor­rect. Four peo­ple with di­rect knowl­edge said that Wilkie and his se­nior aides also em­barked on a cam­paign to dis­credit Goldstein’s claims by sug­gest­ing that she had made sim­i­lar ac­cu­sa­tions many times be­fore. Takano re­ceived com­plaints about those ef­forts and re­ferred the mat­ter to the in­spec­tor gen­eral.

Se­nior aides to Wilkie flatly de­nied that he had or­ches­trated any ef­fort to dis­credit Goldstein.

“The sec­re­tary is the most eth­i­cal, de­cent, honorable man I have ever known,” said Pam Pow­ers, Wilkie’s chief of staff. “At no time did the sec­re­tary ever di­rect, dis­cuss or in­sin­u­ate that some­body should in­ves­ti­gate Ms. Goldstein’s back­ground.”

The dis­pute has sur­faced as the depart­ment is ag­gres­sively seek­ing to in­crease the num­ber of women, who are a grow­ing per­cent­age of vet­er­ans over­all, us­ing its med­i­cal cen­ters. It also comes amid re­ports from fe­male pa­tients and staff mem­bers — in at least one case a med­i­cal di­rec­tor — of ha­rass­ment and as­sault by male vet­er­ans at the cen­ters.

A week ago, the deputy vet­er­ans af­fairs sec­re­tary, James Byrne, was asked to re­main be­hind af­ter a morn­ing meet­ing. Wilkie then told Byrne that he had “lost con­fi­dence” in his No. 2 and that he needed to re­sign.

“For 21⁄2 years I had the priv­i­lege of work­ing with ded­i­cated pro­fes­sion­als at the VA pro­vid­ing care ben­e­fits and ser­vices to de­serv­ing vet­er­ans,” Byrne said.

No fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion has been pub­licly of­fered by depart­ment of­fi­cials for his dis­missal.

“The sec­ond-high­est per­son in the sec­ond-big­gest agency in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment got fired, and no one knows why,” said Kristofer Gold­smith, the chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor for Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica. “It is mind-blow­ing.”

DOUG MILLS/THE NEW YORK TIMES 2019

Vet­er­ans lis­ten to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans na­tional con­ven­tion last Au­gust in Louisville, Ky.

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