MILLER V. MCDONALD: CLASH OF AGENDAS AND LEGACIES FOR VETS
Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, the soon-to-retire chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is a former deputy sheriff of Gilchrist County, Fla., who despises wrongdoing by VA department employees.
Indeed his committee, through his six years as chairman, is perceived by veteran groups as having fixated on exposing fraud, waste and abuse inside the Obama administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
While veteran service organizations largely praise VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s actions and those of his deputy and former West Point classmate, Sloan Gibson since they took charge amid a patient wait-time scandal in 2014 and began reform of the vast VA bureaucracy, Miller isn’t a fan.
We asked for his reaction to McDonald’s recent blasts, at Congress for failing to pass “essential” legislation to sustain VA’s transformation into a high performance organization and at Miller for his “against leadership” bent toward VA. Miller provided a blunt statement charging McDonald with breaking promises, allowing scandals to continue, and ignoring new authority to speed the firing of misbehaving employees. Miller also said much of what McDonald seeks is in 36 House-passed bills still awaiting Senate action.
“When Secretary [Bob] McDonald joined VA,” Miller wrote, “he promised to transform the department and create a climate of accountability. More than two years later, I see little evidence of that happening, as underscored by the fact that VA is still an agency where whistleblower retaliation and [patient] wait-time manipulation are routinely tolerated.”
As proof, a committee spokesman shared links to various local and national news reports over the last two years of incidents where VA was slow to fire wrongdoers and slow to defend whistleblowers. Many of the news reports were written for an online site created by a conservative pundit.
But Miller added that McDonald, despite only two years as secretary after a career in industry, has “a long history of abandoning and undermining the tools Congress has already given him to help reform the department.”
The one “abandoned” tool he cited was the Choice Act’s fast-track firing authority.” Miller also claimed McDonald “threatened to shut down hospitals unless [VA] could raid $3 billion” of a $10 billion fund Congress set up to make more private sector care available to veterans, and that McDonald had “botched” the 2014 Choice Act’s implementation.
We bounced the sharp critique off executives for two large veteran service organizations. Both said most of Miller’s points were wrong or unfair.
On his charge that VA routinely tolerates whistleblower retaliation and wait-time manipulation, “No, we don’t agree,” said Garry Augustine, executive director for Disabled American Veterans in Washington D.C. “We think the VA is doing good work in trying to reform things.”
Louis Celli, The American Legion’s director of veterans’ affairs and rehabilitation, said Legion staff visit 30 to 35 VA facilities yearly, speaking to patients, staff and other stakeholders to learn how VA, the government’s second largest bureaucracy, is operating and caring for veterans.
“Based on our data and analysis,” posted on www.legion.org under its “System Worth Saving” page, “the isolated employee behavior problems reported in recent media are the exception, definitely not the rule,” Celli said.
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