SEMINOLE — Whenever U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller attends a public event, veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs employees find him for short, intense conversations about one VA issue after another.
It happened after his Memorial Day speech at the Bay Pines Veterans Cemetery, where a short line of people waited to get a minute with the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee.
This is life for one of the VA's biggest Capitol Hill critics, who told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday he remains frustrated by the slow pace of reform at an agency hit in the past year by the worst scandal in its history.
"The VA did not get into the situation that exists today overnight," Miller said. "And it's not going to be resolved in a year's time. It is going to take an entire culture change within the department. There has to be transparency and accountability."
And too often, he said, those two qualities are still lacking.
The Pensacola Republican has been in the forefront of debate since the VA scandal erupted in April 2014 when a doctor at a Phoenix VA hospital said that 40 veterans there had died after delays in care and that the hospital kept a secret patient waiting list to hide its shortcomings. What followed was a series of revelations about the VA's widespread tactic of manipulating hospital performance measures nationally, its retaliation against whistle-blowers and patients lost in VA red tape.
The scandal has lifted Miller's profile as he has become a sought-after quote by journalists reporting on the agency's deficiencies. And Miller, 55, is considering a 2016 Senate run for the seat expected to open as Marco Rubio seeks the presidency.
The VA has always posed a thorny political challenge. Florida has one of the nation's largest population of veterans, and railing against the VA's failings gets attention with a big bloc of voters. But politicians who become too critical risk alienating tens of thousands of VA employees.
"I don't want to be the person who is always critical of VA," he said. "If they are doing something good, I want to highlight that. And I believe there are tens of thousands of employees who go to work every day for the right reasons — that is, to serve the men and women who put on the uniform to serve their country. But I will also be the VA's harshest critic when it's necessary."
He noted that the VA has rightly been criticized for failing to fire incompetent managers and mindlessly giving bonuses to those who are failing veterans.
"You have to hold people accountable for what they do, rightly or wrongly," Miller said. "If they do something good, they should be rewarded, whether it's a letter in their personnel file or a promotion or a potential bonus. But when they do something wrong, there should be consequences for that, as well. And that's been lacking at the VA."
One of the hallmarks of Miller's tenure as chair of Veterans Affairs has been his public battles to win greater cooperation form the agency when his committee requests information.
"They're not as responsive as they should be," Miller said. "We've had to go round and round with them where they will send us information finally, and it's redacted or it is missing pages or they will use (patient privacy) laws and say that they can't provide us personal, identifiable information about veterans when, in fact, that's not true. We're not bound by those same laws as we do our investigations."
The VA's administrative offices were closed Monday for the holiday, but in recent congressional testimony, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said employees are working hard to make the agency better and more accountable to the veterans they serve.
"We are implementing a historic departmentwide transformation, changing VA's culture and making the veteran the center of everything we do," McDonald told Congress in February. "We aspire to make the VA a model agency that is held up as an example for other government agencies to follow with respect to customer experience and stewardship of the taxpayer's resources."
Miller said he believes McDonald is doing what he can. But change in a large federal bureaucracy is a long battle, he said.
Those working in "the bureaucracy know they will be there longer than a VA secretary will be in office, longer than a president, longer than I will be chairman of Veterans Affairs," Miller said. "So if they can outwait us, they can go back to doing the same-old, same-old. But for the first time, the veteran service organizations (like Veterans of Foreign Wars) are working with us and not just listening to what the VA has been telling them, that everything is coming up roses when, in fact, it hasn't."
That, he said, provides momentum for reform. And he said McDonald has made some strides to change VA culture.
But Miller said that the agency is still too reluctant to dismiss bad employees and that whistle-blowers remain reluctant to step forward for fear of retaliation. And he said VA workers still fear taking bold action in an atmosphere of second-guessing.
"The VA has 700-plus attorneys," Miller said. "They make everybody gun-shy. Nobody wants to make a mistake."
Still, he remains hopeful. "I believe Secretary McDonald is doing everything in his power to make the sea change that is necessary," Miller said.
Contact William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org.