In order to improve the necessary standard of care for our veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) desperately needs to be reformed. The VA has been plagued with serious issues including, but not limited to, a lack of flexibility to remove poor performing employees, overmedication and lacking health services, a backlog of claims and appeals, and multi-billion dollar cost overruns. With a new administration, change can finally become a reality.
President-elect Donald Trump understands the urgent need to reform the VA; he hasn’t just shown a solid understanding of what needs to be fixed, but has reaffirmed his commitment to making those changes. Mr. Trump ran on a 10-point plan to reform the VA system, with “the appointment of a VA Secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans,” as a priority.
This week, President-elect Trump announced his nomination for the next Secretary of the VA: Dr. David Shulkin, the current Under Secretary for Health at the VA. Serving in Congress over the past two years, I have had several opportunities to interact with Dr. Shulkin, and I’m confident that he is fully aware of the many challenges that currently exist. Dr. Shulkin certainly wasn’t my number one pick to be the next VA Secretary and I am eager to be assured that he is actually going to do everything that needs to be done to better care for our veterans.
Working with Congress and the new administration, one of Dr. Shulkin’s first priorities should include reforms that would provide the Secretary and other top officials with broader authority and flexibility to remove a poor performing VA employee based on misconduct. I strongly believe that almost all VA employees are genuinely committed to the work they do and want to help veterans, but we need to ensure that the rest who are not acting in the best interest of veterans are held accountable. Even the current VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, has stated on numerous occasions that problematic employees and the department’s inability to remove them are one of the VA’s major issues. Last Congress, the House passed the VA Accountability Act (H.R. 1994), which would make important reforms to the VA, and provide the necessary resources and flexibility the VA needs to hold poor performing employees accountable, but unfortunately the Senate did not take up this bill before the end of the term. This must be a priority in 2017. We also need to provide further protections for whistleblowers, so that those who come forward about wrongdoings are protected.
In addition to needed structural reforms, better treatment of the mental wounds of war has been sorely lacking at the VA. While some progress has been made, too many veterans have fallen through the cracks; we can and must do better to identify and assist these veterans. We must place a priority on increasing access and quality for peer support programs and counseling services, as well as emergency services. Expanding programs such as the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Program (Dwyer Program), which is currently operating successfully in New York, will ensure that every veteran eventually has access to a peer support group. Public/private partnerships such as this provide an enormous benefit to veterans and create a support system that was previously unavailable. Additionally, President-elect Trump has proposed to create a 24/7 hotline at the White House to directly field calls from veterans trying to get the help they desperately need. With long wait times for required procedures, secret wait lists and falsified wait list documents, and disturbing findings that veterans who contacted the suicide hotline at the VA were not only sent to voicemail, but some of these calls were never returned, a hotline for veterans at the White House could prove to be a great addition. To further increase access to care and benefits, the VA also needs to reduce the backlog of claims, but not by simply just increasing the backlog of appeals by denying good claims. The process should be reformed so that it is streamlined into a more efficient system, so that more veterans can access the benefits and care that they need in a more timely manner.
Additionally, construction projects continue to be the cause of much controversy under the direction of the VA. The Aurora, Colorado VA hospital has been under construction for years past the scheduled opening date, and what’s worse is that the project is roughly one billion dollars over budget. We need to systematically reform the process that the VA utilizes for capital construction: the current practices and trajectory will result in the entire system nationwide to fall into a state of disrepair before too long, which would only compound the list of challenges that exist today. These gross inefficiencies at our VA facilities are completely unacceptable, and veterans would likely be better served if the VA was removed from leading the hospital construction effort altogether.
There is so much work ahead to reform our VA system. In the past, top VA officials have stonewalled Congress, which has led to Congress needing subpoenas to be used in order to carry out its oversight function. The VA must be held accountable to Congress, media and the American public, but most importantly, to our veterans. Moreover, I hope and expect that the President and American public will hold Dr. Shulkin’s feet to the fire to ensure he follows through and does not fail in any capacity whatsoever with this new mission. I’ll be the first in line to shake his hand and say thank you if he seizes this opportunity and makes the absolute most of it in the best interests of all of the brave men and women who answered the call to serve our great country in defense of our freedoms and liberties.
Congressman Zeldin (R, C – NY 1) is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 1st Congressional District and currently serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 2006 Zeldin was deployed to Iraq with an infantry battalion of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2007, he transitioned from active duty to the Army Reserve where he currently serves with the rank of Major.