As new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Bob MacDonald passes his two-month mark in office, the news media have begun trying to determine whether or not he is likely to be effective in redirecting VA to a more accountable course.
The Belleville, Illinois News-Democrat published a Sep. 28, 2014 article authored by veteran reporter Mike Fitzgerald, entitled: “Are VA reforms working? Metro-east veterans weigh in“. The article said, in part:
MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
Nationally, longtime critics of the VA say it’s too early to tell if the reforms that Obama signed into law are making a difference.
After all, the VA, with 731 medical facilities nationwide, is so big and serves so many patients, and handles so many claims, it could take years to assess if the reforms are making a difference.
That’s especially true when it comes to changing the system’s inbred management culture, according to experts.
The VA’s management culture lay at the heart of the latest scandal plaguing the VA. It exploded in late April, when the news media began reporting, based on a whistleblower’s disclosures, that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Hospital.
Congress soon jumped into the fray when it was revealed that many of the veterans who died had been placed on secret waiting lists that prevented them from obtaining needed medical care.
The covert list was part of an elaborate scheme which VA managers had devised to hide the fact that up to 1,600 sick veterans had to wait months to see physicians. By hiding these patient lists, the managers reaped millions of dollars in bonuses awarded on the basis of their supposed success in cutting patient wait times.
The scandal over the secret waiting list led to the forced resignation of former Army General Eric Shinseki as the VA secretary and the appointment of Robert McDonald as his replacement.
Earlier this month McDonald announced a 90-day plan for fixing the VA’s recent woes.
Anthony Hardie, a board member of Veterans for Common Sense, of Washington, D.C., said he’s hopeful the reform law and McDonald’s 90-day initiative represent a start in the right direction.
But in view of the huge, entrenched problems afflicting the VA — including a culture of deception and a long history of “cooking the books” regarding patient care and research — there is still a long, long way to go, according to Hardie.
“I think a year or two from now we’ll be able to say, ‘Yeah, we’re beginning to see some change,” Hardie said. “And maybe five years from now we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘That was the beginning of major change.’ I hope that’s what we can say.”
A report released by the VA inspector general in August stated that no deaths at the Phoenix VA could be “conclusively” linked to long wait times.
But the main whistleblower in the VA scandal two weeks ago denounced the IG report, calling it a “whitewash.”
A similar article by Claire McNeill in the Oct. 1, 2014 edition of the Tampa Bay Times, “VA secretary announces progress, promises more change“, came on the heels of a local Florida visits by MacDonald, who made stops to the Haley VA medical center in Tampa and the much maligned Bay Pines VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg.
According to the article:
McDonald has appeared at Washington meetings that his predecessor never attended, said Anthony Hardie, a Bradenton resident on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group. And McDonald’s presence in the Tampa Bay area is significant, he said.
“He’s clearly making sure that he is hearing what the concerns of veterans are,” Hardie said. “I believe what the secretary is doing are very important first steps. At the same time, I’m still very guarded in my optimism.”
The secretary acknowledged the department’s deep issues.
“Too many of our employees have felt disenfranchised,” he said. “They have not been included. Too many of our veterans have been disenfranchised.”
He said the nearly 9 million veterans under VA care are the top priority, and leaders must work to ensure that veterans and employees are provided for. He called on every employee to be a whistle-blower.
“I want people to feel free to tell me what’s going wrong, and I feel the formality that may have been existing may have gotten in the way of that,” said McDonald, who freely distributes his cellphone number and said he fields calls from veterans at all hours.
Hardie said McDonald must consult all stakeholders to create real change in the department.
“It’s like turning around a battleship, and it will be a long time before we know if the captain of the battleship is successful,” Hardie said. “It feels like he’s doing the right thing in terms of listening, but he needs to reach deeper.”
That “deeper” included reaching out to former VA employees-turned-whistleblowers, many of whom were forced out of VA employment. One of them would be former top VA epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Coughlin, whose testimony at a March 2013 Congressional hearing rocked Capitol Hill with his insider revelations of VA cooking the books on post-deployment health research to cover-up or otherwise minimize acknowledgement of post-deployment health issues. Those allegations were later substantiated in a very quiet internal VA investigation.
Coughlin was honored last week at an evening affair in Washington, DC hosted by the Sgt. Sullivan Center, which focuses on complex post-deployment health issues like that suffered by the center’s namesake before his untimely death. Veterans for Common Sense was represented at the event by Anthony Hardie, VCS Board Member and one of the event’s featured speakers.
If MacDonald were to consult whistleblowers like — and including — Coughlin, collectively they could provide a great deal of insight to MacDonald in righting and reforming the VA ship.
Read the full cited articles here: