Draining Bernies VA Swamp

Alice Dubenetsky

It looks like something finally will happen to improve the delivery of health care services to our veterans.  While hope springs eternal, President Trump seems willing to grab the scandal-rocked Veterans Administration by the horns and drain the swampy institution that is supposed to serve those Americans to whom we owe a sacred promise. 

The confirmation of David Shulkin as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, combined with a ten-point plan handed to him by Trump is a hopeful signal that the culture of self-preservation and self-enrichment that has plagued the agency for years will be challenged and changed for the better.  Shulkin is an M.D., who served as the VA undersecretary for health under the Obama administration. He takes the place of Bob McDonald who drew heavy fire from veterans groups when he likened the wait times to a Disneyland experience, and who’s general performance was disappointing at best. 

The VA’s problems exploded into the public’s awareness in 2014 when allegations surfaced that the Veterans Administration Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona kept a secret waiting list that allowed them to appear to meet their goals in patient services.  It was discovered that patients were removed from the real computer waiting list, and noted separately on a “secret list”, where sometimes their names, and their worsening illnesses, languished for months.  Forty veterans on that list died before they had access to medical care.  News followed that Phoenix was not an isolated incident and that numerous VA hospitals across the country had similar issues with falsification of records and long waiting lists.  

Vermont Senator and then Chairman of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders routinely defended the VA and insisted that it was running smoothly when it clearly was not. In a 2009 video, Sanders, a Socialist, smugly noted during a senate hearing that, “the VA is a socialized health care system.”  When the scandals became too huge to hide, Sanders lashed out and blamed, of all people, the Koch Brothers for the endemic problems of the gargantuan socialistic agency he oversaw.  Said Sanders  in 2014:  “Right now, as we speak, a concerted effort (is underway) to undermine the VA.  What are the problems? The problems are, is (sic), that all of these are large, governmental institutions and you have folks out there now, Koch Brothers and others, who want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.” 

Bernie was, as usual, wrong, and finally we have a president with a plan. One of the major problems with the agency, according to a 2016 article in military.com, written by then Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Jeff Miller,  is the American Federation of Government Employees.  The union’s President, J. David Cox, actually threatened VA Secretary Bob McDonald with physical harm if he didn’t go along with the unions demands.  According to Miller, McDonald did absolutely nothing in response.  “The exchange perfectly encapsulates the corrosive influence government union bosses are having on efforts to reform a broken VA,” said Miller.  “It’s a never-ending cycle in which pliant politicians and federal agency leaders bow to the bosses’ demands to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system, which almost guarantees employment for government bureaucrats no matter how egregious their behavior.”

Well, there is, as we’ve heard, a new Sheriff in town who also knows how to play hard ball and one of the points on Trumps 10 Point Plan is to use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out the duties on behalf of our veterans.”  That, and the rest of the plan will no doubt put the Trump administration and his new VA Secretary on a head to head collision course in a battle for control of the agency.  The plan also calls for a new commission to investigate fraud, cover-ups and other wrong-doing, the protection and promotion of honest employees who highlight wrongdoing, the creation of a private White House hotline, answered 24 hours a day by an actual human who will be devoted to addressing veterans complaints.  The plan calls for cessation of bonuses to VA employees who are wasteful, and the rewarding of employees who seek to improve service, cut waste and save lives.  The new plan will also “ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice. Under a Trump Administration, no veteran will die waiting for service.”

It’s been a long time coming, and hopes have been dashed before, but maybe this time, with this administration, our veterans will finally be placed above the bureaucracy and union thuggery that to date has best served only themselves.