Article by: Jason Quick
September 11, 2014 - 6:38 PM
Minnesota has always been known for its top-rated health care — even for veterans. During the nationwide Department of Veterans Affairs scandal this summer, the Minnesota VA touted some of the lowest wait times in the country and was essentially left out of the conversation. Until now.
A recent investigative report by KARE-TV, Ch. 11, found two former employees from the Minneapolis VA who exposed malpractices that have plagued other such facilities around the country. The women told harrowing stories of long wait times, secret waiting lists and falsification of data — which at this point are almost uniform issues at the VA.
When they finally couldn’t take the injustice any longer, they attempted to alert upper managers of the problems — but instead of addressing the problems, they said, the VA fired the whistleblowers. Unfortunately, this sort of story is all too familiar. Good people who try to reveal bureaucratic problems get no response beyond punishment for disturbing the status quo. (The director of the Minneapolis facility, Patrick Kelly, told KARE that allegations of wait times were “unfounded” but later issued a statement saying that the facility welcomes an investigation.)
The common problem at the VA? Accountability. There’s no one keeping a watchful eye on the department to ensure that its work is done efficiently and that it is giving veterans the service they deserve.
My organization, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), is a sort of “watchdog” for the VA. This includes VA malpractices and the mindless flow of money from Washington that does nothing more than feed the broken machine. The administration wants to solve the VA problem like it solves most of its problems — with more money — but dollars are not the problem at the VA.
It’s going to take large-scale reforms and an all-out culture overhaul to bring any real change to fruition. The problem lies in the attitude that systemically alters the motivations of the bureaucratic higher-ups. The mission of the VA is to serve veterans, not administrators.
This attitude comes from a bureaucracy that wants nothing more than to continue to feed itself as it is instead of bettering itself in order to improve services for veterans. Furthermore, not a single person has been fired during the entire scandal. If you can’t clean out the people feeding the problem, how are you supposed to effect any sort of change in culture?
A month ago, President Obama signed into law the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 — legislation CVA fought long and hard for. It finally gave the VA power to fire bad executives. However, even with this valuable tool in place, we still haven’t seen it happen.
Realistically, the Minnesota VA just happened to be next in the line for publicly exposed VA mistreatment, but solutions are needed beyond Minnesota. They must go all the way to Washington, where lawmakers will try to wipe their hands of veterans issues after having passed some legislation and seeing the VA scandal fade from the headlines.
Minnesota legislators have been no different. While senators like Al Franken may claim victory simply because they voted for the VA reform bill, in reality they were dragged into voting for it by the scandal. Franken and others thought that Minnesota was a shining star in an otherwise tattered bureaucracy, but what we quickly discovered after months of shocking stories is that our star had fallen, too. It turns out the department’s problems are deeply systemic, and when the time came for Minnesota’s U.S. senators to add early support for legislative reforms, they were nowhere to be found.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican from the Second District, was an early cosponsor of the VA Management Accountability Act, signing on to the bill Feb. 27. Rep. Paulsen, a Republican from the Third District, was also cosponsor, joining the bill May 19. In the Senate, the story was different — Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, became cosponsors of the legislation only after it had passed the House and after we ran ads holding several of their peers accountable for the their lack of support. Eleven days after the legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and the writing was on the wall, our senators decided to lend their voices to veterans.
The media ran their breaking-news stories. Congress feigned outrage and passed its piece of legislation. The president signed it into law. Problem solved, right? Not the case. Nobody has been fired, and veterans continue to wait excessive times — and in some cases die waiting — for the care they have earned. Clearly, our leaders and the media have shown that if veterans don’t stand up for themselves, no one will.
CVA refuses to let this problem be swept under the rug, because there is not a group of individuals more deserving of quality health care than those who put their lives on the line for our country. We will continue the fight to hold not only rogue VA executives accountable, but also those legislators who failed to lend their support to real reform proposals when veterans needed them most. Join us at 9 a.m. Friday for a rally before the VA town-hall meeting at the Whipple Federal Building in St. Paul. It’s time for us to demand real reform.
We supported meaningful legislation before it suddenly became everyone’s favorite talking point, and we will keep fighting well beyond the next news cycle.
Jason Quick is the Minnesota state director for Concerned Veterans for America. He served as a scout squad leader in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division.