House-passed VA compromise isn’t a cure-all

Monday marked a significant day in Washington politics, when self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and longtime conservative veteran supporter Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) reached a compromise on the issue of veteran health care. With only one week left before the looming August recess, lawmakers struck a deal. Two days later, the $17 billion VA reform bill passed the House 420-5. But sadly this legislation doesn’t go far enough to address the real problems in our Veterans’ Affairs health system.

The bill would allow veterans to have private healthcare options under certain conditions and would allow for the firing or demotion of Senior Executive Service (SES) employees who are not performing to standard. These are positive changes, but this proposed legislation is not a cure-all for the plagued VA system.

First, veterans would have the option to seek private healthcare if the VA is unable to provide an appointment within 30 days, or if the veteran lives greater than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. Veterans would be provided a “Veterans’ Choice Card” that would allow them to receive medical care at the expense of the VA.

$10 billion of the $17 billion allotted in this bill would go to a fund called the “Veterans Choice Fund” that would cover the payments of the private healthcare costs. This is a crucial part of the VA reform bill. Obviously, veterans deserve a better option when the VA cannot provide medical care in a timely manner or within a reasonable distance.

Second, the bill would allow the VA to have the authority to fire top-level SES employees if they are failing to meet the standard of the job or are participating in any form of misconduct. Currently, it is almost impossible to fire or demote people in these SES positions. This is not just a VA issue, but a problem in any federal agency.

If an SES employee gets demoted or fired, he has the option of a 21-day appeals process. If a decision is not made within the allotted 21-day time period, the initial recommendation of employment termination or demotion is approved. This is a much-needed change that will help bring an accountability culture back to the VA.

While both of these measures are steps in the right direction, the Sanders-Miller deal does not do enough to address how the overall VA culture is going to change. How is the VA going to become more transparent to prevent gaming the system, secret wait lists, ghost clinics, and retaliation against whistleblowers? This latest bill could be yet another short-term “solution” to a long-term problem of veterans’ access to health care.

A real solution would offer private healthcare options to veterans without stipulations, but this bill imposes many limitations: Private options will only be available under certain circumstances, and only to veterans who are enrolled in the VA healthcare system by August 1, 2014 or a veteran who will separate from service in the future (after August 1, 2014). This leaves out any veteran who has chosen previously to avoid the failures and frustrations of the VA.

And Friday’s enrollment deadline is almost a joke: Can the bureaucracy at the VA possibly process any paperwork by then? This leaves almost no time to inform current veterans of the change. (Compare that to ObamaCare enrollment deadlines, which were consistently delayed in efforts to enroll more people in coverage. Apparently, our vets don’t get that privilege.)

If the goal of this bill is to provide the best care for veterans, why does that only apply to certain veterans? Why punish those vets who refused to use the VA in the past (possibly for justified fears of bad treatment)? This bill is just another way to protect the VA bureaucracy and deny veterans from receiving the best care without extensive wait times.

Furthermore, this bill makes the common government-minded mistake of simply throwing money ($17 billion) at the problem. The VA has never had a funding problem; it has seen an increase in funding of almost 60 percent since 2009. No amount of money given to the VA will solve its problems without a clearly defined strategy to change the structure and culture of the program.

It is refreshing to see members of Congress working together and having the ability to compromise, but this bill is clearly an attempt to smooth over a recent set of scandals with policy tweaks. Veterans would be better served by real, meaningful reforms. We must get VA reform right once and for all, rather than turning our backs on a system that will continue to fail our nation’s veterans.

Originally published at Red Alert Politics

Follow Amber on Twitter: @AmberBarno

Ex-Army Chopper Pilot Amber Barno: ‘We Want to See Real Change’ at VA

By Lauretta Brown

(CNSNews.com) – Former Army helicopter pilot and Iraq war veteran Amber Barno says the scandal at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) calls for “a new reformed VA that’s going to help veterans,” not just “another piece of legislation that isn’t going to fix the VA.”
“We want to see real change,” Barno, who is now a military advisor at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), told CNSNews.com.

She added that she has high expectations for the new conference committee that is trying to iron out the differences between VA reform legislation passed by the House and the Senate before Congress goes into recess.

Those expectations include “clear” standards of care for veterans and increased ability to fire VA managers who do not meet them.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that such an overhaul of the military veterans’ health care system would cost $35 billion.

“I think that the VA scandal is outrageous and really upsetting, as a veteran myself,” Barno told CNSNews.com.

“I think that the VA conference committee that’s going on right now, they really need to, before it gets to the president’s desk, it really needs to have very strict and straightforward language in it to make sure that there’s no loopholes moving forward that the VA can use, especially when it comes to private care and wait times in terms of basically what goes in to a veteran being able to receive private care because of a long wait time or too far a difference from or distance to a facility.

“So it needs to say 21 days or 60 miles or less. That’s what I would like to see come out of the VA select committee and hopefully legislation moving forward.”

“We want to see real change. We don’t want to see just another piece of legislation that isn’t going to fix the VA. And that’s what we want to see here is a new, reformed VA that’s going to help veterans,” Barno concluded.

Barno echoed the open letter CVA CEO Pete Hegseth sent to the VA Conference Committee last Thursday which stated that “the final legislation must both aggressively address VA’s systemic problems and shield reforms from VA bureaucratic sabotage.”

CVA stipulated provisions that should be included in the final legislation, including the establishment of “clear, independent, and automatic wait time and geographic standards for seeking private care,” “timely reimbursement payments,” and “real accountability.”

CVA stated that the “bill must reflect clear standards—no more than 21 days or 60 or less miles—to define what constitutes excessive wait times, or excessive travel, for VA care.”
“A core aspect of this reform is the ability for poor VA managers to be promptly removed for cause,” the letter said. “Any effort to further dilute accountability measures must be resisted; and final language should hew closely to the House accountability language.”

Read more at CNS.com

 

Veterans Deserve Better Than A Shinseki Retread

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.

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.

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.

Originally published at The Federalist

Follow Amber on Twitter: @AmberBarno