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  1. Opinion

Column: Bill brings urgent reforms to VA

There hasn't been nearly enough progress in fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs since last year's wait-list scandal. In fact, the VA has actually gotten worse. Wait times for health care are up, budgetary problems abound, and veteran disability claims are literally being thrown out. It's hard to have confidence in an organization where these stories have become so common.

Congress and President Barack Obama finally have a chance to change that, however, with the VA Accountability Act. Unlike many veterans bills passed in recent years, the VA Accountability Act actually reforms the VA by making it easier to fire bad VA employees and empowering whistle-blowers to report wrongdoing.

This should be an obvious priority for Congress. Fortunately, Florida's congressional delegation has played an important role in introducing and advancing the VA Accountability Act. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the primary Senate sponsor of the bill, and a bipartisan majority of Florida's House delegation voted for the legislation when it passed the House in July. However, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who has actively sought to uncover wrongdoing at the VA, hasn't yet indicated whether he supports the VA Accountability Act. Considering his past support for VA reform, including a similar bill that targeted senior VA executives, this should be a no-brainer for Sen. Nelson.

The VA continues to fail Florida's 1.5 million veterans, which is why the act is needed. Just look at recent headlines.

Earlier this summer we learned about a pest infestation at Tampa's James A. Haley VA hospital. Staff documented appalling conditions including dead rats falling through a kitchen ceiling and a roach infestation. "We could possibly end up on the news, not to mention risk patient safety," warned a VA employee.

There's something wrong when patient safety is an afterthought to bad publicity. Meanwhile, employees who respect the law and try to address potentially dangerous problems are reprimanded for having "exceeded their authority." Some staffers at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center investigated signs of a Legionnaire's Disease outbreak in their facility. For this, they faced retaliation. Tragically, one veteran later died after contracting the disease.

With working conditions like this, it's no wonder VA health care quality is deteriorating, as evidenced by the fact that the number of veterans on wait lists has risen nearly 50 percent since last year.

Before things get any worse, the VA must restore confidence and trust in its employees. Staff need to know they'll be rewarded — not punished — for doing the right thing. They also need to be sure those who engage in misconduct will be disciplined.

That's where the VA Accountability Act comes in. The legislation puts into place what some have called "the strongest protections in history" for whistle-blowers. It penalizes administrators who interfere with a whistle-blower's reporting of the truth, and ensures that employees feel unimpeded from challenging practices that endanger veterans' health.

The VA Accountability Act also gives the VA secretary the ability to fire or replace bad VA employees. As it is now, poorly performing VA staff are protected by politics and bureaucracy. It's often impossible to fire employees found guilty of misconduct. Only three employees were fired in connection with last year's scandal — compared to dozens of veterans who died while waiting for care.

This goes to show how entrenched bad VA staff can be. Just as the VA Accountability Act strengthens protections for those who deserve them, it takes protection away from those who don't.

Nobody denies that most VA employees are caring, dedicated and ethical. We simply don't want their work to be overshadowed or undone by the few who don't live up to their responsibilities. In order to achieve that noble goal, the VA Accountability Act should become law.

Diego Echeverri, who is the Florida state director of Concerned Veterans for America, served in the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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