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Topics: House of Representatives

The Florida Republican who is Veterans Affairs' worst nightmare

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Congress,Senate,House of Representatives,Veterans Affairs,David M. Drucker,PennAve,Veterans,Jeff Miller,Magazine,Bernie Sanders

Jeff Miller shouldn't be here.

The House is recessed for the week, and most of America's representatives are in their districts meeting with constituents or campaigning -- or traveling somewhere in the world on congressional business. In this election year, when anger at Washington is boiling over, Capitol Hill is the last place any incumbent wants to be unless they absolutely have to.

But Miller isn’t home in Pensacola, on the coast of Florida’s Panhandle, mingling with the 1st District voters the Republican has represented since 2001.

Instead, the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee is burrowed in his office, across the street from the Capitol, plotting the next several months of his aggressive strategy to get to the bottom of a national scandal that has enveloped the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s typical for Miller, 54, who has doggedly pursued the VA crisis since taking over as Veterans’ Affairs chairman three and half years ago.

“We will keep the light shining on the department as long as it takes to force them to change,” Miller said, during a half-hour long interview with the Washington Examiner. “They have lied to Congress, and part of our investigation over the next few months will in fact prove that out.”

To accelerate the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s inquiry, Miller is hiring more staff investigators. The chairman said the VA’s bureaucracy remains belligerent and continues to stonewall his committee’s investigation, even in the wake of internal agency reports showing that “systemic” problems and malfeasance by senior VA executives led to veterans dying because they did not receive timely medical care. With more investigators, Miller can sidestep stubborn VA officials to obtain information.

For the foreseeable future, Miller plans to hold two oversight hearings of the full Veterans Affairs' Committee every week the House is in session, beginning on June 9. Normally, Veterans Affairs' meets as a full panel about once every other week. In August, during Congress’ month-long summer recess, Miller plans multiple committee field hearings and extensive visits to VA facilities across the country.

Miller's immediate priority is to get legislation to President Obama's desk that makes it easier for the Veterans Affairs secretary to fire agency employees and hold them accountable for the myriad problems plaguing the department. The House recently passed a bill with broad bipartisan support, but Senate Democrats blocked the legislation. They worry that the House bill would enable VA employees to be unjustly fired without due process.

Miller's bill is narrowly focused. The Senate bill takes a broader approach to addressing the VA's problems, while treading lighter on the House's priority of strengthening accountability. Particularly given the chilly relations between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate, it's unclear if compromise is possible, although Miller's staff and that of Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders have been in discussions that are expected to include direct talks between the two chairmen.

“We might have a slightly different approach, but that’s something that can be worked out,” said Sanders, a Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “While we absolutely want to improve management capabilities — we want to get rid of incompetent executives, no question about that — you also need doctors and nurses.”

The VA scandal burst into public view in May, when a Veterans Affairs Department inspector general inquiry found a rash of operational shortcomings at the agency's health care facility in Phoenix. Among them: 3,000 veterans were waiting an average of 115 days for a first appointment with a primary care physician. Additionally, VA executives in Phoenix willfully fudged the numbers and attempted to cover up the problems.

Further investigating by the VA's inspector general said these and other problems highlighted in the report were “systemic” and extended beyond Phoenix to other facilities around the country. The matter forced Eric Shinseki, a decorated retired Army general, to resign as Veterans Affairs secretary.

The findings were hardly surprising to Miller.

Last year, he visited the Atlanta VA, where executives failed to disclose the death of a veteran who had tried to admit himself but was turned away and later committed suicide at the hospital. He held a field hearing in Pittsburgh, where executives received performance bonuses despite a Legionnaires' Disease outbreak that led to six deaths. In January, Miller visited VA hospitals in Columbia, S.C., and Augusta, Ga., where at least nine died because they had to wait too long to undergo routine procedures.

Miller said the problems with VA health care run even deeper, declaring flatly that the Phoenix inspector general report was the beginning of an avalanche of similarly troubling findings that would become public in the coming months. And that, Miller said, doesn’t even account for an agency that conducts its ordinary business, such as contracting, without employing basic management practices. Miller acknowledged that this troubling culture is partly the result of years of lax congressional oversight.

“It’s not a question of money,” added Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., who has constituents that use the Pittsburgh VA. “I contend that there’s a tone deafness within the bureaucracy.”

Miller argued that a willingness on the part of both political parties to simply throw money at the VA, whose mission it is to serve America’s military heroes, is responsible for the agency’s behavior.

Even now, lawmakers are careful about how they discuss the VA and its ongoing problems, for fear of ending up on the wrong side of voters and politically powerful veterans advocacy organizations. It’s why the Veterans’ Affairs committees in both chambers tend to be among the most bipartisan in how they operate. Veterans groups are similarly wary of criticizing the VA, worried that attacks might look political and diminish the bipartisan goodwill they enjoy.

Miller has chosen a more confrontational approach.

The Floridian said he knew when he became Veterans’ Affairs chairman that the department needed reforming, but conceded that he was unaware of the extent of the problems until he began digging into the inner workings of the agency and reviewing complaints. He said that VA employees’ unwillingness to provide basic information to the committee, requested as a part of its standard oversight function, added to suspicions that major problems existed.

The answer to the problems at the VA has always been to “write a bigger check,” argued one critic of the department, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. Democrats and Republicans on Miller’s committee have acted in bipartisan fashion at almost every turn. But the chairman is described by some as the first lawmaker to upend the usual dynamic and demand that the VA ferret out bad employees and overhaul its operations.

“Jeff Miller was willing to have the courage to tell hard truths early on,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. “This discussion would not be anywhere near where it is now without Miller and his staff at the committee. When no one else was willing to do the hard work to expose this, Miller was.”

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