While veterans and the general public remain outraged over the mistreatment of veterans at VA medical facilities while executives collect thousands of dollars in bonuses, the most recent VA reform package did not dump the bonuses for high-level employees. This essentially means that business as usual will continue at the VA.Congress is simply throwing money at the problem, hoping that when the cameras stop looking the public will just forget about the issue. However, nothing has been done to prevent things from getting worse for veterans.
At the same time, the new VA secretary has ordered town hall-style meetings at all VA facilities in order to hear veterans' complaints. Unfortunately for veterans, this so-called reform package shows that even if the VA is aware of patient concerns, they don't particularly care, especially when it comes to lining their own pockets. One must question how much is really being reformed.
VA leaders and Democrats insisted that the bonuses are necessary for attracting quality employees, much to the chagrin of Republicans, who tried to eliminate the bonuses for executives. Democrats dug their heels in and kept the provision in the final bill, opting instead to cap them at $360 million, which is only a modest decrease from the $400 million paid out just two years ago.
Republican disapproval of the executive bonuses is nothing new. In August 2013, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, authored a scathing editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, saying:
"Sadly, the department’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability may be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it."
The piece went on to detail how the regional director responsible for overseeing the Pittsburgh VA clinic, where 5 veterans died due to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, was awarded over $60,000 in bonuses.
"The situation is routine at the department, where failing executives have been collecting massive bonuses for years," Miller wrote.
Social media was abuzz with angry comments after the final bill was signed in August. While some comments were more diplomatic than others, one sentiment permeated them all: the VA doesn't care about veterans; they only care about padding their own wallets.
In his remarks about the package, President Obama, flanked by leaders of veteran service groups, praised the rare example of bipartisanship, but admitted that this is only the first step and that the VA has a long way to go in order to fix its pervasive problems. In fact, the culture of corruption at the VA is so severe, it may never be able to iron out all the wrinkles, no matter how much taxpayer money is thrown at the problem."This will not and cannot be the end of our effort," Obama said. "Implementing this bill will take time. It will take focus from all of us."
The president added that the bill "covers a lot of ground."
Noticeably absent from much of the negotiations about the bill were veterans groups. However, despite the fact that scores of veterans have suffered from the corrosive nature of the VA, leaders from many of these groups posed for a photo op with the president at the signing of the new bill.
"The VFW has never been against bonuses provided its award is performance-based," said Veterans of Foreign Wars Public Affairs Director Joe Davis in an email.
The problem is that the bonuses were essentially always performance-based. Executives simply manipulated the records to make their performance look better so that they could collect more money. This does not change under the new reform package. A spokesperson for the American Legion was not available for comment.
"Caring for Veterans is a calling, and our first commitment is to provide Veterans and their families the timely, quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve through their service to our Nation," Secretary McDonald said in announcing the town hall meetings that were supposed to give veterans a forum to voice their concerns.
"As we seek continual improvement and to rebuild trust among Veterans, it is critical that we continue to listen and learn directly from those who use our system," he added.
The meetings have already begun, but early reports say that they are quickly devolving into agency spin sessions that don't allow veterans to express their thoughts or concerns.
The meetings are to be concluded by the end of September.
Photo Source: Bernie Sanders' Senate webpage