Topics: Veterans Affairs

Examiner Editorial: Veterans Affairs department needs stem-to-stern overhaul

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Opinion,Editorial,Veterans Affairs,Veterans,Washington Examiner,Eric Shinseki,Magazine

Drastic measures are called for when people have to work in “a poorly maintained, often older, office building in which the environment puts the occupants at risk for upper respiratory conditions.” Such “sick buildings” typically require stem-to-stern renovations before they can be brought back to health. There is an analogous situation in government — the sick bureaucracy. For an example, look no further than the disaster known as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It is a national disgrace when hundreds of thousands of veterans' applications for disability and other benefits are chronically delayed, and VA officials routinely misrepresent to Congress the seriousness of the problem and its causes. Reporting last year by the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten revealed that “more than 1.1 million veterans are trapped in bureaucratic limbo waiting for the VA to process claims for disability and pension benefits earned through military service. Many will wait years for an answer.”

Those kinds of problems can be solved by bringing in new leaders willing to change whatever is necessary — including people and processes. More recent reporting by Flatten, however, suggests that the situation at VA may be beyond fixing. Five patients in the Pittsburgh, Pa., region VA facilities died in 2011 and 2012 due to Legionnaire’s disease linked to unsanitary conditions.

In fact, VA officials have acknowledged at least 16 other preventable patient deaths at the department’s facilities in Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., Columbia, S.C., and Memphis, Tenn. As Flatten reported Feb. 14, many of the government executives in charge of those facilities received bonuses worth thousands of dollars in recent years.

But there could be hundreds more vets who will die directly or indirectly in the near future as a result of VA mismanagement. Flatten reported Feb. 25 that the Los Angeles VA office has purged from its records doctors' orders for an estimated 40,000 medical tests since 2009. The Dallas VA office purged an estimated 13,000. Nobody can know now how many lives would be saved or at least extended as a result of treatment of conditions uncovered by those purged tests. The only response from VA to Flatten's reporting was to call it “scurrilous,” even though it was based on internal agency documents.

An investigation of the mass-purging of medical test orders has been demanded by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking member of the House Republican leadership, and Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan, a former VA surgeon who now is chairman of a key House panel on veterans issues. Such an investigation is necessary, but it should not be a substitute for significantly more far-reaching changes, starting with the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a host of other senior executives.

Those departures should be followed by a top-to-bottom reorganization that exempts VA executives and employees from civil service and union rules and regulations. Fixing VA could thus become an opportunity to create a 21st-century model for reforming other federal agencies whose missions include delivery of entitlement benefits and services. America’s veterans and taxpayers deserve nothing less.

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