This morning, VA Secretary Robert McDonald is testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee about the ongoing problems that are keeping our veterans from getting the care they need when they need it.  If President Obama’s rhetoric yesterday is any indication, we’ll hear more of the same instead of a commitment to real change.

But wasn’t Secretary McDonald brought in to address these very problems?  How does he defend – or even explain – all this?

  1. Waiting lists are even longer now than they were during last year’s waiting list scandal.  Last year, Congress approved $16 billion in emergency funding to improve care, but the number of veterans waiting one month or more for care has actually jumped by 50 percent.   This may have something to do with the fact that much of the money for a private care program has gone unspent because of “resistance to change among employees.”
  2. Only two lower level employees were successfully fired for the wait time manipulation at the heart of last year’s VA scandal.  Last year, Congress gave the VA Secretary new authority to fire senior officials, but the agency has only been able to fire TWO employees for actions at the heart of a scandal that affected some 110,000 veterans.  “What the hell happened to the rest of them,” Speaker Boehner asked earlier this spring.
  3. While our veterans suffer, VA bureaucrats are keeping their jobs and their bonuses.   In Montgomery, which has some of the worst waiting times in the country, bonuses went up last year.  In Memphis, where they had to shut down some services for “lack of funds,” bonuses went up last year.  And in Maywood, Illinois – under FBI investigation for fraud – bonuses hit a three-year high last year.  “If only VA bureaucrats did as good a job taking care of our veterans as they do themselves,” Speaker Boehner said in May.
  4. Many veterans have already died while waiting for care, but the VA can’t tell you exactly how many.  The VA’s records show that about one out of every three veterans waiting for care has already died.  That’s about 238,000 veterans.  The problem, as the Associated Press notes, is that the agency can’t even figure out the exact number.
  5. Meanwhile, deceased patients were still being taken care of for years by the VA.  According to an internal VA report, the records of one out of every 10 veterans were still listed as active after they died.  That means they were still getting checks, regular appointments, and in one case, “a miscommunication allowed 76 prescriptions to be filled at one pharmacy for controlled substances.”  
  6. The VA can’t account for how the cost of a single construction project ballooned by $1.1 billion.  It took only about two years for the cost of a VA hospital in Denver to go from $604 million to $1.73 billion, but when asked to explain what happened, the VA’s deputy secretary said, “you’re not going to find a dollar-by-dollar account.”  This is the same deputy secretary whose recent message to Congress was “get your checkbooks out.”  Note that $1.1 billion represents the entire construction cost of the 85,000-seat stadium Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built in Arlington, Texas.
  7. The VA has been spending $6 billion a year illegally and has no intention to change its practices.  “Doors are swung wide open for fraud, waste and abuse,” the VA’s internal watchdog wrote in a report that details how agency officials skirt federal spending standards.  For example, supervisors take cards traditionally reserved for minor purchases and use them to pay for major expenses like prosthetics.  The VA also pays for health care expenses without contracts and says it would be “too costly and cumbersome” to change this practice.
  8. The president has left the VA without a permanent inspector general for more than 18 months.  At a time when the VA needs the most possible oversight, the president has failed to nominate a permanent independent watchdog for the agency.   The administration won’t even offer a “public timeline” for when one will be nominated.

As you can see, this isn’t just about problems that persist – it’s about a culture that can’t define and won’t commit to solving the problems at all.  That’s why, next week, the House will take up legislation that gives the VA Secretary the authority to fire any employee for misconduct.  Only the president can truly change the culture at the VA, and we’ll continue to hold him and his administration accountable until our veterans see the progress they are demanding.