NATIONAL -- Earlier this month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald got into a heated argument with a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee while defending his efforts to turn around the scandal-ridden agency. Specifically, he called out U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), a veteran of both Iraq wars, over his comments regarding McDonald's tenure.
"[The VA] is a department mired in bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. I fundamentally believe … when this president ends his term, you will not have made a dent in changing the culture of VA," Coffman told McDonald.
McDonald took exception to this statement, calling it "highly offensive."
During the impassioned exchange, and much to the shock of those in the room, McDonald said, "I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?"
"I've been here six months. You've been here longer than I have. If there's a problem in Denver, you own it more than I do," McDonald said, referring to the hospital being built there that is currently over budget, significantly delayed, and has become the lightning rod for all things wrong with the VA.
Coffman did not respond to McDonald's dig at the hearing, but later said, "I have never run a federal agency that tolerates corruption the way the VA has. I've never built a hospital that's years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget. And I've never been a shill for inept bureaucrats who allowed American heroes to die on a medical waiting list."
But a key question remains: what has Bob McDonald done to correct the mistakes of his predecessors?
In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press McDonald said, "We're making fundamental changes in the department… 900 hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We've got 60 people who we've fired who have manipulated wait times, we've got about 100 senior leaders who are under investigation now… so we're holding people accountable."
Further he notes that wait times are down 18 percent nationally.
In November, the VA instituted a program, called the Veterans Choice Program, to reduce these wait times even more. McDonald touts the program as one of his successes, but some veterans disagree.
Under the program, veterans that meet certain criteria are issued a card that allows them to see civilian providers in their local communities on the VA's dime. But The Washington Post reports that while "the card gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor," there seems to be some discrepancy as to how that 40 miles is calculated.
According to the Post, "some veterans say that when they attempted to use their card, the VA told them they had to live more than 40 'miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies,' from their VA rather than Google maps miles, which makes the card harder to use."
Despite McDonald's fiery defense, there is further evidence that the department is still in disarray. Choice cards have even been issued to veterans who had already died years earlier, painting the picture that it's business as usual at the VA.
USA Today reports that delays continue at the Phoenix VA Hospital, the facility that blew the lid off the wait time scandal.As recently as January 29, The VA's inspector general found "he urology department for the Phoenix VA Health Care System remains understaffed and 'hundreds of records behind' in processing in-coming tests results from private doctors paid to examine veterans."
This is not the end of the problems in Phoenix, where the investigation into the delays has been interrupted.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs, which for months delayed an investigation of Phoenix VA hospital officials to ensure the probe was carried out properly, has seen its inquiry disrupted because national leaders appointed a key investigator who had a conflict of interest,” the Arizona Republic reports.
While McDonald claims 900 people have been fired, he has reportedly done his best to delay investigations and firings.
"In October, VA Secretary Robert "Bob" McDonald told Military Times that culpable VA bosses were not being fired or punished promptly because criminal probes were still underway," the Republic further reports.
However, the House Veterans' Affairs committee upped the ante on the VA "by obtaining DOJ approval for the VA to fire and discipline administrators while criminal probes were underway."Yet just a month later, McDonald borrowed a page out of his predecessor's playbook by telling a different group of reporters that "erminations must be carried out according to strict legal rules. Our Constitution provides for due process, and we are following due process."
In the Senate, Colorado lawmakers are demanding further federal investigations into the boondoggle that is the Denver VA hospital replacement.
According to the Aurora Sentinel:
"The U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals found that the VA failed to meet its contractual obligations and had designed a project costing more than $1 billion, $400 million more than the original design price. The Board also found that the VA did not have sufficient funds to pay for the construction, had no plans to request additional resources."
The report also said that the VA owed the contractor $157 million for costs already incurred.
"Colorado's veterans deserve better than the mismanagement of the construction of the VA hospital in Aurora. A Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Denver would help our colleagues better understand the issues and the urgent need to find a solution that will lead to this project's completion. Our veterans have waited long enough, and we will do everything needed to hold the VA accountable," U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) said in a prepared statement regarding a potential field hearing.In
Pittsburgh, where several veterans succumbed to Legionnaire's Disease contracted at the hospital, the behavioral unit was shut down and admissions were suspended earlier this month due to a Norovirus outbreak. These incidents prompt more concerns about the sanitary conditions at the facility.
"Nineteen patients who fell sick in the unit over 13 days have recovered," VA Pittsburgh spokesman Mike Marcus told the Tribune Review.
Perhaps the national wait time average is down by 18 percent, but that doesn't help veterans in places like Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Denver who are having their care delayed and, in some cases, contracting an institutional infection.
While McDonald's indignation served to make an otherwise mundane hearing more entertaining, his combative attempt to pass the buck and insult a combat veteran, one of the very people he is supposed to be serving, demonstrates that the VA is operating its business as usual. Senator Bennet's assessment seems to be correct and could be applied to veterans nationally.
These events are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the culture that McDonald claims is changing. Just this week, new whistle-blower reports have surfaced detailing the mishandling of disability claims. The report claims that several facilities have, once again, dealt with an extreme backlog of disability claims by simply destroying any record of those veterans' claims. Inquiries into these reports are ongoing.