Hot Air Interview: Mike Coffman on VA Scandal

Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colo) is the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and a man who has both a deep professional and personal interest in the future of our nation’s veterans. As such, it will come as no surprise that he’s been heavily involved in the ongoing investigation of the scandals plaguing the Veterans Administration in general and Secretary Eric Shinseki in particular. Congressman Coffman was nice enough to offer an interview to Hot Air this week on the subject at hand.

Before we get to the interview, a bit of background for those who are less familiar with the Congressman’s record. Coffman was born to a military family at Fort Leonard Wood and served in the Army, the Marines and the reserves. His service included combat tours in both the first Gulf War and Iraq, so he’s no stranger to the lives and challenges of our military and veterans. He has served in the Colorado state House and Senate, as well as holding the offices of State Treasurer and Secretary of State before being elected to represent the 6th District in the United States Congress.

Congressman Coffman recently launched a petition for citizens to add their voices to the call for Shinseki to resign. (You are invited to participate.) He’s also not been shy about taking to social media to make his views absolutely clear.

And with that, our interview with the Congressman.

Hot Air: Congressman Coffman, thanks for taking the time for an interview with Hot Air. I’d like to make note of your impressive military record and thank you for your service to our country. We’d like to speak to you today about the state of affairs regarding how we care for our veterans in general, and the ongoing scandal with the VA in particular. The medical care our veterans receive from the VA has long been lauded as some of the best we could hope for, but it appears that the bureaucracy administering the system is completely dysfunctional. How long has this been going on and how did we reach this point?

Mike Coffman: Military personnel, who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, are cared for under the military health care system while those who have been separated from active duty receive their care through the Veterans Administration. Unlike in previous wars when wounded military personnel were stabilized in military hospitals only to be separated from active duty to go into the Veterans Administration for their rehabilitation, today we keep our wounded on active duty though out their rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the care at our nation’s VA hospitals has been in doubt for a long time. Secretary Shinseki has been in his position for over five years, so he bears significant responsibility for the failure of the VA culture. He has not led the bureaucracy but has been led by the bureaucracy.

H.A.: We’ve all seen the pictures on television of the stacks of cardboard boxes reaching to the ceilings, filled with the files of veterans’ claims. How much of this is a lack of modern technology and how much is administrative incompetence and malfeasance?

M.C.: No doubt, relying on a paper system slows down the process but that is simply a function of poor management and a lack of leadership in initiating the reforms necessary to move the process along faster. One of the problems is that those who do the claims tend to be generalists and I believe the process would move along faster by having specialized claims personnel who become experts in specific areas whether Gulf War Illness, Agent Orange, or PTSD.

H.A.: The news broke today that Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel was resigning following his testimony in Washington this week regarding the scandal. What, if anything, does this do to address the problem?

M.C.: Absolutely nothing since he was planning on retiring this year anyway. We need new leadership at the top in order to clean house. The rank and file of the Veterans Administration are basically dedicated to meeting the needs of our nation’s veterans, a third of which are veterans themselves, but the leadership is only interested in serving themselves and not those who served us.

H.A.: What specific steps could VA Secretary Eric Shinseki (or his replacement, should he resign) take to begin cleaning this mess up?

M.C.: The first thing that Shinseki’s replacement needs to do is to get rid of the bureaucrats who have surrounded Shinseki and have created the unacceptable culture that exists within the Department. Shinseki’s replacement should first fire all of those senior bureaucrats around him that have helped create a culture where the mission of VA leadership has been to serve themselves and not to serve those who have sacrificed so much in defense of our nation. That would send a clear message to the rank and file, most of whom want to be there to help our nation’s veterans, that what the VA has done in inexcusable.

H.A.: We’ve seen this problem at as many seven or more VA hospitals. If the problem were just at one location, you might have a rogue administrator, but at what point do we conclude this was national policy?

M.C.: It may very well have been. The problem is that we are staffing these agencies with people who are not very good at serving our veterans, but are very good at giving bonuses to each other. If they do well on paper they get a bonus. And this leads to a culture of corruption.

H.A.: We provide great service to veterans while they are in service, but it seems to fall apart in the civilian world. Should the VA be run directly by military personnel?

M.C.: Going back to Vietnam we’ve done our best for our soldiers when we keep them in direct military service all the way through the entire rehabilitation process. That’s because the military is a true meritocracy which rewards results. The federal civil service system is not. It tolerates, or possibly rewards, mediocrity if not incompetence and corruption.

H.A.: Are we already past the point where Eric Shinseki should have been fired?

M.C.: Well past. In the VA their first response is denial. Their second response is to cover up and their third response is to try to defend those responsible. Secretary Shinseki said the other day that he was “mad as hell” about this scandal. He wasn’t. He’s mad as hell that they’ve been exposed.

H.A.: Is the solution to this problem really as simple as new computers?

M.C.: The VA has been given everything they’ve asked for. On the [Armed Services] committee we’ve begged them to move forward with new technology. The fundamental problem here isn’t a lack of technology, but a lock of integrity, transparency and competency.

H.A.: Where does the committee go from here?

M.C.: We simply can not let this go. To let this go without firing Secretary Shinseki and rooting out the source of these problems would be a blanket admission that this was all okay. It would be to admit that we leave this up to those who serve not their country and our veterans, but who serve themselves. And that would lead to this sort of culture in the VA continuing, and we can’t do that.

If you agree that Shinseki has to go, be sure to sign the petition linked above.

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