If President Obama wants to leave behind a second-term legacy – a difficult task given the fact of a self-devouring Congress – he has an obvious target. The Department of Veterans Affairs has become the Inspector Clouseau of the federal government. Obama should begin the work of overhauling a department that stumbles at every turn.
The latest disgrace is a bonus system that rewarded workers with millions of dollars for a practice that encouraged them to avoid processing claims that needed the most effort. Meanwhile, veterans have been waiting longer than ever to secure their wartime disability compensation. This is how we treat the nation’s wounded veterans?
Alone, that issue would be enough to warrant presidential attention, but it is only the latest – and surely not the last – in a series of episodes that document an agency that doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s time to acknowledge that truth and act upon it.
Consider other incidents that have occurred just this year:
• In January, it was learned that more than 700 patients at the Buffalo VA Medical Center had been exposed to the threat of HIV, hepatitis or hepatitis C infection because of the inadvertent – meaning careless – reuse of insulin pens over a two-year period. Misuse of the pens began the day they were delivered and their misuse exposed 716 patients to the risk of serious illness. How did that continue for two years without setting off alarms? Where is the oversight?
• In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs canceled a six-day athletic event in Buffalo for which it had signed contracts just two weeks earlier and which was to begin only 10 weeks later. The announcement – later reversed under pressure – threatened to cost Western New York more than $2 million and disappoint more than 2,500 veterans and their families, sponsors and supporters. Many already had booked travel to Buffalo. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but emblematic of a malfunctioning operation.
• In May, it was reported that thousands of patient files at VA hospitals in Buffalo and Batavia were misplaced or damaged. They included cardiac records, dental records and Agent Orange registry records. Some of the records were randomly thrown into boxes, many Social Security numbers were not attributed to the correct veteran and mold-covered files were not properly handled.
• In the same month, about 600,000 benefit claims were classified as backlogged, meaning that they had been pending for more than 125 days. This revelation followed the release of an internal report that the VA handed out $2.2 billion in mistaken payments last year, even as it was failing to pay veterans who were entitled to benefits.
And now we know why. Thanks to this week’s report by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students, we know that VA workers have been setting aside more-difficult cases in order to keep their production levels high enough to qualify for bonuses. The abuse has been rampant. The VA’s Baltimore office, which has the longest wait times in the country, gave bonuses averaging $1,100 to 40 percent of its workforce.
This review of incompetence only scratches the surface of the dysfunction within the VA. In Pittsburgh, for example, the VA hospital mishandled an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. Five veterans died, but the workers involved in the outbreak still received positive performance reviews and bonuses. The director of the hospital snagged top grades on her performance review.
This is a disaster of a department, whose solemn mission is to serve the nation’s veterans. It is clear that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki – a former four-star general and Army chief of staff – is not up to the task of fixing this agency. It will take different skills and a determination not to tolerate the lethal practice of rewarding failure.
Obama needs to act. Even as much as his opponents may despise him, most members of Congress surely believe that the nation owes a greater debt to the country’s veterans than this clattering, belching organization can provide. He should take on this battle, for the sake of the veterans and for his own record in office.