This month is the third anniversary of the Phoenix VA scandal, in which it was revealed that dozens of veterans died while waiting for government health-care appointments. The scandal revealed widespread incompetence and corruption throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs, which as the mother of a U.S. Army Ranger, has been heartbreaking to watch unfold.
Yet three years later, many of Pennsylvania's 940,000 veterans are wondering what, if anything, has changed. It can still take months to get doctors' appointments, while horrifying headlines of misconduct have become seemingly weekly events. And throughout it all, there's been essentially zero accountability for employees who are responsible for the problems.
Congress must change this, and they have an opportunity with the VA Accountability First Act of 2017. It's already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) should encourage his colleagues to pass this much-needed reform.
Pennsylvania's VA facilities are no strangers to scandal. After the deadly outbreak in 2011-12 of Legionnaires' disease in the Oakland and O'Hara VA hospitals - which left six veterans dead and 16 sick - it took more than two years to fire the VA director responsible for those facilities. And though an investigation determined that systemic management problems caused the outbreak, the director's superior retired with a five-figure bonus.
Such delayed firings and undeserved bonuses are the result of a bureaucracy that shields bad employees from any meaningful accountability. And it's not limited to Pennsylvania, either.
For example, it took more than 700 days to fire three VA executives involved in the Phoenix waiting-list scandal. Three years later, fewer than 10 VA employees involved in that scandal have been fired. And even those who were fired still received full compensation after being placed on administrative leave.
Fortunately, the VA Accountability First Act would reform much of this broken system. For starters, it would streamline the termination process for negligent and poorly performing employees that today can drag out for years. And, importantly, employees who are fired would no longer be able to receive paychecks while appealing their termination.
The act would also give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses from employees who are later found to have engaged in misconduct. Similarly, it would allow the VA to reduce the pensions of senior executives who are convicted of felonies. No one should ever be rewarded for mistreating our country's heroes.
This legislation is supported by most major veteran service organizations, including the American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America. It also has the support of the new VA secretary, David Shulkin, who recently stated, "We need accountability legislation as soon as possible."
The only thing holding up this commonsense reform is Washington special interests, led by the American Federation of Government Employees. Rather than work with Congress on solutions that improve accountability and veteran health care across the board, they are more interested in preserving the status quo and putting their own members' interests ahead of veterans' needs.
Casey should ignore union demands and cosponsor the VA Accountability First Act. It would be a clear opportunity for him to show his constituents where he stands: on the side of protecting American veterans, or on the side of preserving government bureaucracy at their expense.