July 12, 2014

The VA scandal is far from ordinary

There is a predictable evolution to the life of a scandal in Washington.

There is a predictable evolution to the life of a scandal in Washington.

It begins with outrage, followed by finger-pointing, then congressional hearings. Once the throats of politicians are hoarse from pontificating, policymakers offer some modest legislative fixes before partisanship and other distractions drive their attention and efforts elsewhere.

But the scandal that has recently consumed the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs is too big and too serious to follow this pattern. Fortunately, there are some promising signs it will not follow suit, and that the exposure may result in significant and long overdue reforms at the VA.

It’s been more than two months since reports surfaced that veterans had died while waiting for care at a VA medical facility in Arizona, swiftly followed by charges that elaborate “gaming strategies” were used to cover up delayed doctor visits and deferred treatments.

Those revelations prompted whistleblowers to come forth with similar allegations at other facilities around the nation, including those in Waco, San Antonio, Austin and Harlingen — evidence that implicated a department-wide conspiracy and eventually resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Robert Shinseki.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, both houses of Congress have passed bills in response to the scandal.

While imperfect, the legislation represents an important step toward reform.

One House bill, passed unanimously, would make it possible for veterans to seek private care if their treatment were delayed beyond a “standard” period of time. It would ban the issue of employee bonuses for two years. A second bill empowers VA leadership to fire under-performing senior executive level employees or those involved with misconduct.

The Senate’s legislation includes similar accountability measures and leases for 26 new VA major medical facilities.

More than two dozen representatives and senators resumed conference committee meetings last week to resolve differences between the proposals, with hopes of sending a final bill to President Obama’s desk before the August recess.

The proposed measures have earned praise from veterans’ groups, many of which are pleased to see Congress finally tackle problems in the federal government’s second-largest bureaucracy.

But there is also skepticism that these limited measures alone cannot address what deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors called the VA’s “corrosive culture,” in his June 27 report to the president.

Nabors’ review also found “distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

Further confirmation of the department’s corrupt atmosphere was on display during a rare evening congressional hearing Tuesday, examining 67 claims that department supervisors retaliated against whistleblowers, 25 of the claims having been filed after the scandal became public.

Sloan Gibson, who is serving as acting department secretary until the confirmation of the president’s nominee, Robert McDonald, has assured agency employees that “intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem,” will no longer be tolerated.

Such assurances cannot guarantee a rapid cultural transformation when bad practices have been so widespread for so long.

Still, there is enough evidence to suggest that Congress is not treating the VA problem as another “ordinary” scandal, but with a serious, substantive and bipartisan, albeit tardy, response.

The commitment of elected leaders to fix the department must extend well beyond this Congress.

Senators and representatives must continue to take their oversight responsibilities seriously, remain vigilant in holding bureaucrats accountable, and continue to pass reforms to prevent the department from spiraling back into its corrosive culture once the scandal fades from the headlines.

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