Finally there is progress at the Veteran’s Administration. It’s now over three years since the scandalous revelations of 2014 when veterans were dying while waiting for appointments to see a doctor.
The Coburn Report
Senator Tom Coburn (R – OK) investigated the VA scandal and released a report called “Friendly Fire: Death, Delay, and Dismay at the VA.” The tragic consequences of this scandal of mismanagement are highlighted in the report:
- The report identifies $20 Billion in waste and mismanagement that could have been better spent providing health care to veterans.
- More than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA misconduct over the past decade.
- The federal government has paid out $845 million for VA medical malpractice since 2001.
- Most VA construction projects are over budget and behind schedule, inflating costs by billions of dollars.
During the Obama administration little progress was made in solving the many problems and reversing the perverse culture that contributes to the dilemma. But recent signs reveal the Trump administration is having better success.
According to David A. Patten, writing in Newsmax, Trump started working on the problems even before he was inaugurated. In December last year Trump convened a group of highly respected healthcare officials at his Mar-a -Lago estate in Florida. The group was put together by highly respected Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and included Mayo Clinic CEO John H. Noseworthy, Paul Rothman of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Dr. David Torchiana of Partners Healthcare and Dr. Toby Cosgrove of The Cleveland Clinic.
As a result of that meeting, many ideas were put forth on how to fix the VA. The right leader was needed to implement these changes and President Trump appointed Dr. David J. Shulkin as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Shulkin was the former president and CEO of New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center. He won Senate confirmation with the only 100 – 0 vote.
Shulkin recognized immediately that he needed the power to hold VA officials accountable who were not performing well. The result was an executive order by Trump to establish the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. He also authorized the VA secretary to use “all available authorities to discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has violated the public’s trust.”
Shulkin has instituted an aggressive series of reforms:
- “Stop Fraud, Waste and Abuse” campaign to save millions of taxpayers’ dollars
- New electronic record keeping system to replace old paper-based system. The new system is the same as already exists in the Department of Defense which makes the two systems compatible to share records.
- Wait times for appointments posted online to increase transparency
- Free mental health services to all veterans, regardless of service records. This is a serious attempt to lower the suicide rate currently at 20/day.
- Decision Ready Claims – electronic claims process to process the backlog of 90,000 disability claims.
- Choice program enhanced – to allow veterans to seek private care outside the VA system. Over 500,000 community providers are participating.
- Low-rated medical centers being investigated. Fourteen identified centers are currently under investigation.
Despite all this good news, there are still problems due to the federal bureaucracy that is deeply entrenched. The case of Brian Hawkins is a good example, which was reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Hawkins was director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D. C. until April when he was fired after the Inspector General, Michael Missel, issued an emergency report on his facility. His report found 18 of 25 sterile storage areas for supplies at the D.C. facility were dirty.
The hospital had no effective inventory system, so doctors and nurses had to routinely cancel or delay procedures for lack of supplies; they used recalled or expired products on patients. The facility had run up 194 official reports of safety incidents involving patients since 2014 – and those were merely the incidents reported. Vendors removed equipment because the hospital failed to pay its bills.
Hawkins was dismissed on July 28 for having “failed to provide effective leadership at the medical center.” Hawkins claims he was wrongly terminated and appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which was established in 1979 to protect federal employees from abusive treatment. Unfortunately it has become a union-supported shop dedicated to protect employees from discipline. The board issued an immediate stay on his removal, meaning the VA must continue to employ Hawkins while he fights dismissal.
Secretary Shulkin plans to use the Hawkins case to test the VA Accountability Act’s new powers of removal. He will fire Hawkins again, under the new law, which bars him from appealing to the Merit Board. He will then have 21 days to appeal the firing to an internal board made up of fellow senior executives or go to court.
Hopefully this case will set a precedent that will give the VA Secretary the powers he needs to hold his employees accountable. Veterans’ lives are at stake.