It seems we couldn’t let the era of Obama end without at least one more scandal in the Veterans Administration. The list of shortcomings (to put it mildly) in this agency is already legendary and we’ve been repeatedly assured by the White House that things have been cleaned up and put back on track. And yet stories like this one keep bubbling to the surface. (Government Executive)
The Veterans Health Administration, which relies heavily on financial incentives to recruit and retain critical staff, did not try to recoup outstanding debts of nearly $800,000 in fiscal 2014 from employees who should have reimbursed the government, according to a new report from the Veterans Affairs Department’s watchdog.
The audit, which reviewed the department’s use of recruiting, relocation and retention compensation in fiscal 2014, found that VHA did not enforce repayment for roughly 55 percent of the estimated 238 incentives for which employees did not fulfill their recruitment or relocation obligations. That inaction, according to the IG, “resulted in an employee repayment liability of about $784,000 in FY 2014, or an estimated $3.9 million projected” for fiscal years 2015 through 2019. The inspector general reviewed incentives awarded to members of the Senior Executive Service as well as non-senior executives in VA’s Central Office with a fiscal 2014 start date.
In the larger scheme of things it might not seem as if a figure which comes in at less than a million dollars is a very big deal, but this is only one bump in a long series of ripples across the pond. Also, this is your money we’re talking about, and the department has an obligation to shepherd those funds carefully. So was this an intentional scheme to defraud the public, or simply a massively endemic series of “oversights” on the part of the VA? Upcoming investigations may provide the answer, but the bottom line is that they were spreading around cash for relocation expenses which the employees were clearly on the hook for and then making no effort to recoup those checks. This will no doubt remind us of the previous scandal from 2015 where two executives bumped subordinates from plum positions only to take the jobs themselves and pocket tens of thousands of dollars in relocation costs.
The VA is badly in need of an overhaul but who is going to do it? There was a lot of angst combined with humor when it was suggested last year that Trump might put Sarah Palin in charge of the agency. I don’t know if she’s still on the short list, but there probably should have been some sort of answer by now. I’ve tried to avoid bashing the President Elect overly much before he’s even been sworn into office, but filling up the cabinet is one of the jobs he has to take care of sooner rather than later. Trump has been downplaying the delay in nominating someone to the VA since early December, but with only ten days to go we still don’t even have a name, say nothing of a schedule to begin confirmation hearings.
The VA, an agency responsible for some of the most important obligations we have to nation’s finest, has become a stark embarrassment during Barack Obama’s tenure. (Though we should be clear that it had troubles long before then.) This has led some – including incoming HUD Secretary Ben Carson – to suggest that we should largely do away with the agency and turn at least the medical care portion of their duties over to the private sector. That still seems a bit extreme to me, though allowing all veterans to have a card allowing them to go to a private hospital any time local VA care isn’t immediately available seems like a no-brainer. But as long as we continue to see stories of fraud, abuse and incompetence such as this one you can expect those calls to grow louder. We need a new VA Secretary in place as soon as possible and I hope Trump makes the right call on this one.