Q: What new action has Congress taken to fix systemic flaws at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)?
A: During the Obama administration, widely reported scandals involving wait times and delayed patient care at VA health facilities prompted a series of legislative reforms, including passage of a new Veterans Choice program to cut wait times and improve access to medical care. Congress added $16 billion to build more facilities, hire more medical staff and allowed eligible veterans to seek services outside the VA medical system. New tools also were enacted to root out wrongdoing and mismanagement at the VA, the second largest bureaucracy in the federal government. It was imperative to purge wrongdoing that was weighing down the mission of the department. And yet, many of those implicated in the wait time scandal were still employed years after it was exposed despite the pledge by the newly appointed VA Secretary to clean house. This allowed a flawed mindset to fester and further corrode morale among the majority of the conscientious workforce at the VA. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs hundreds of thousands of medical staff and personnel to administer benefits and services to the more than 18 million veterans living in communities across the country. The VA operates 1,221 outpatient facilities, 144 hospitals and 300 veterans centers. For the millions of men and women who wore the uniform in service and sacrifice to our nation, it is the nation’s sacred duty to deliver the benefits promised to these patriots and their families for their military service. Congress is working to ensure these promises are upheld, particularly as shortfalls at the VA continue to come to light. For starters, the president signed in April an extension and reform of the Choice program. And this summer Congress passed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to improve accountability procedures and to protect those who come forward to expose wrongdoing. These reforms are designed to make it easier to fire federal employees who violate the public trust in carrying out the VA’s mission to serve veterans. Other measures include prohibiting bonuses and relocation expenses for those found guilty of wrongdoing or abuse and shortening the time frame to avert endless appeals for employee grievance proceedings. The patient wait time scandal underscores that even one bad apple can spoil the entire barrel. It is demoralizing to the thousands of public servants who work day in and day out to do right by veterans. Sweeping evidence under the bureaucratic rug only poisons the culture at the sprawling federal bureaucracy and puts the well-being of veterans at risk. Doctoring the books to cover up wrongdoing and gaming the scheduling system to hide patient backlogs are egregious abuses of the public trust. Our system of checks and balances is strengthened by the courage of whistleblowers who come forward with the truth to improve good government and public services.
Q: What have you learned about wait times for veterans seeking treatment at Iowa’s VA facilities?
A: Unfortunately, it appears my Senate office was provided inaccurate information from the Department of Veterans Affairs when I sought specific details about wait times that extended beyond 90 days for Iowa veterans seeking an appointment. It’s upsetting to receive misleading information from a federal agency entrusted to serve Americans, most especially when the issue involves the health and welfare of veterans seeking medical care. Through many years of conducting oversight, I have learned that effective oversight requires tenacity and that transparency brings accountability. That’s why I also work to strengthen whistleblower protections for those who put their livelihoods on the line to expose wrongdoing within the sprawling federal bureaucracy. In this particular case, a whistleblower provided information to my office that conflicted with information provided by the VA. Remarkably, and contrary to the VA’s initial assertions, the data provided by the whistleblower revealed that hundreds of veterans in Iowa were waiting for an appointment between one and two years, which VA has since acknowledged is accurate. This is entirely unacceptable. Considering the dark cloud hanging over the VA since the scandal was exposed three years ago, it’s even more remarkable VA staff would provide misleading and false information to my inquiry about backlogs for Iowa’s two VA hospitals. While the VA maintains it was a misunderstanding, I clarified multiple times that I was seeking information on waits for appointments beyond 90 days, and you would think the VA would make a special effort to be fully transparent on this subject given its checkered past. It is abundantly clear that the VA needs to get out of a defensive posture and work to promote a culture of transparency and reform. Rest assured, I will continue working to conduct robust oversight and enact reforms that bring about effective changes needed to uphold the promises made to America’s veterans.