Congress finally reached a bipartisan agreement on reform for the VA, which consists mainly of more money now with promises for more accountability later. The agreement between the two heads of Veterans Affairs Committees, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), fell into the expected form of more funding and greater flexibility on personnel management in order to get rid of problem managers and executives. Still missing — real options for veterans trapped within a chronically-failing system:
According to the draft agreement, $15 billion more in funding will be allocated to the VA, which has faced accusations of being understaffed, among other allegations. CNBC has learned that the agreement includes the following:
- Emergency funding to give veterans who can’t get a medical appointment at the VA the option to receive non-VA care
- More money to address VA’s in-house needs
- Authority for the VA secretary to immediately fire corrupt or incompetent senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights
As a short-term fix, this may work. It won’t solve the chronic problems at the VA, which come from the kind of unaccountability seen within any single-payer system. The problem with the non-VA option is that access to it is still controlled through the VA itself. Veterans who cannot get appointments within the wait-list parameters are eligible for care paid by the VA outside of its own network, which means that veterans have to demonstrate that wait lists are too long. This, of course, was the center of fraud at the VA that prompted the reform effort in the first place. By putting some of the VA’s funding on the line based on wait times, Congress has just incentivized more wait-list fraud at the VA, not less.
This is nothing more than throwing good money after bad in an attempt to rescue a system that is designed to resist accountability. Only when veterans can make the choice themselves as to which providers they see will the VA reform itself to be more responsive to their needs, and to be more accountable for their failures.
By the way, don’t expect the bureaucrats to put up with the expanded personnel-management authority for the VA Secretary. A group called the “Senior Executives Association” has already pushed back against the effort, according to the Washington Post, and want civil-service protections restored:
In a statement on Monday, the Senior Executives Association said it “continues to take exception to the belief that large numbers of senior executives are problem employees who are not held accountable.”
The planned legislation would allow the VA to fire or demote senior executives for “poor performance and misconduct,” according to a summary from Miller’s office. Employees would have one week to appeal the decisions, and the Merit Systems Protection Board would have to issue a ruling within three weeks.
Questions remain about whether the MSPB, which ensures fair treatment for federal workers, can handle a likely increase in appeals. The tiny agency is still digging itself out from thousands of furlough appeals that came after spending cuts last year forced many government employees to stay home without pay for several days.
“There’s no way the MSPB can process these cases within 21 days — it’s not physically possible,” said Kristin Alden, a D.C.-based attorney who specializes in federal-employment law and litigation. She added that the agency aims to issue rulings within 120 days under its own regulations.
Readers will not be shocked to learn that the SEA supports “other parts of the deal” — mainly the extra cash, even though the VA’s annual budget has increased 78% over the last six years, making it the fastest-growing Cabinet-agency budget in the Obama administration on a percentage basis (and #2 on a cash basis). When it comes to accountability, though, senior executives responsible for the performance of the agency prefer to pass the buck. And they may have a point, because the expanded authority really doesn’t change the trajectory of terminations so much as it expands the basis on which they can occur. If the MPSB is still a chokepoint for clearing out the deadwood, it just means that they’ll be stacking cords of deadwood higher and longer than ever — while still sucking taxpayers dry and leaving veterans without medical care for weeks, months, and years.
This isn’t “reform.” It’s kicking the can down the road and ensuring that veterans will still be at the mercy of unaccountable bureaucrats for the foreseeable future.