It’s been roughly 18 months since one of the worst scandals in the history of the Veterans Affairs Department was exposed, but Washington has yet to be able to deliver timely health care services to veterans.
To commemorate Veterans Day, the White House has touted the work it’s done on behalf of those who have served in uniform and unveiled new initiatives that, among other things, streamline a private medical care program for veterans who can’t get access to veterans’ health care, and expand efforts to end veteran homelessness. Officials also called on Congress to pass a bill protecting troops from for-profit colleges that prey on GI bill recipients.
Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, President Obama highlighted his administration’s “historic investments” in the VA, but noted the “unacceptable problems” the department has experienced -- namely the systemic fraud uncovered last year that showed agency officials at several medical facilities covered up patient wait times, which may have contributed to some deaths.
The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign and spurred Congress to pass a $16 billion overhaul of the second-largest federal agency.
“I am still not satisfied” with the pace of VA reforms, Obama said, and pledged to keep investing in the department. Despite the president’s high-minded rhetoric, the administration and Congress are still grappling with how to get the VA on a path to long-term success.
For instance, it appears the department won’t accomplish its self-imposed goals of ending veteran homelessness and erasing its disability claims backlog.
While states like Connecticut and now Virginia claim they have found home for their homeless veterans, tens of thousands remain on the streets, according to the Associated Press. Staffers on the GOP-controlled House Veterans’ Affairs Committee estimate the VA spending on homelessness has leapt from $376 million in 2009 to about $1.5 billion last year, prompting questions about the effectiveness of such efforts.
Meanwhile, the number of disability claims pending for more than 125 days stands at around 76,000. That figure is 88 percent below the more than 611,000 that existed in 2013, but means the backlog will exist into 2016.
The department is also by no means out of hot water with Congress. Republican lawmakers have criticized Shinseki’s replacement, Robert McDonald, for not moving faster to dismiss officials connected to the healthcare scandal and for inflating the number of employees who have been disciplined under his tenure.
The agency suffered another setback earlier this month when two senior officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights at congressional hearing about allegations they gamed the department’s hiring method for personal gain.
To add to the outrage, the VA gave executives and employees $142 million in performance bonuses for 2014—despite the scandals and the fraud that so far only resulted in four people being fired and no indictments.
The VA’s troubled reputation didn’t stop the Senate on Tuesday from voting 93-0 to approve a fiscal 2016 spending bill for veterans’ benefits and military construction. The measure, the first funding bill to be passed by Congress this year, gives $79.7 billion in discretionary funding for military construction and veterans programs, about $7.9 billion more than fiscal 2015 spending levels.
“The veterans have $2 billion more than they would have had we followed the Republicans’ lead, $2 billion more," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said during a Capitol Hill press conference. “So we’re satisfied this bill is a good bill, and it’s a good bill because veterans are getting $2 billion more.”
The money will go toward a variety of efforts, including hiring more medical staff and claims processors, but there’s no indication that it will be enough to clean up the fall-out from last year’s controversy.
About a year ago, McDonald, the former head of Procter and Gamble, rolled out an agency wide initiative titled “MyVa” to streamline the organization, improve customer service and help veterans navigate the department’s bureaucracy more easily.
In a speech last week at the National Press Club in Washington, McDonald said the department has integrated “improving customer service” and other MyVA goals into employees’ performance plans.
“So, we have made progress. We have a lot more to do. There is lots of investigations currently underway. And as time goes on, you will see the results of these investigations,” he said.
McDonald added he’d suggested to congressional committee leaders, “We hold a hearing on the MyVA transformation rather than continue the barrage of hearings we’ve had on things that occurred two years ago.”