Rubio: A path for reforming the VA

Published Oct. 19, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 350,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $159 billion. Yet today — more than a year after scores of veterans died while stuck on secret wait lists — mountains of backlogged disability claims, wide-scale construction overruns and a serious lack of accountability continue to plague the agency.

Instead of being given the benefits they have earned, veterans' disability applications have been shredded, while whistleblowers who expose this corruption face retaliation. Time and time again, too many senior VA officials have proven incapable of serving those who have served our country.

Last year, our nation was shocked by reports of egregious systemic failures at 110 VA facilities around the country that kept secret lists to mask the true length of veteran wait times, so that incompetent bureaucrats could pick up taxpayer-funded bonuses. Since then, only three employees have been fired for wait-time manipulation; not a single one of these employees was a senior executive. Not only did employees guilty of misconduct keep their jobs, but many were promoted and even received bonuses.

In fact, it is so difficult to punish VA employees for their misdeeds that, incredibly, one VA employee in the department's drug addiction treatment program took a patient to a crack house, purchased narcotics for the veteran, stole the veteran's $600 VA check, received $225 in overtime pay for his "work," and was still employed by the VA more than a year later.

It doesn't end there. Recently, investigators found that 307,000 veterans have died waiting for their applications for care to be processed. In one case, a veteran waited 14 years for VA care, while his application rested in "pending" status since 1998. The department has been aware of this since 2010, and still, no one has been held accountable.

In our own state of Florida, veterans are still waiting 30 days for a primary care appointment at the Jacksonville VA. Meanwhile, the James A. Haley VA has been stricken with serious pest issues, and every day veterans from across the state contact my office for assistance navigating VA's broken bureaucracy. These conditions are alarming and our veterans deserve better.

This lack of transparency and accountability even extends to VA construction projects like the Denver VA. With a $1.6 billion dollar price tag, more than $1 billion over its initial budget of $604 million, the Denver VA hospital is known to be one of the most expensive medical facilities in the world. And at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, officials decided to spend more than $6.3 million on art, including $483,000 for a sculpture of a rock.

The incompetence at the VA is unacceptable. Negligence continues to go unpunished while our nation's heroes are dying. We must stand together as a nation to ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve. It's why earlier this year, House VA Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and I introduced the VA Accountability Act of 2015, a commonsense reform bill to end the culture of unaccountability by giving the VA secretary additional authorities to remove or demote any VA employee based on performance or misconduct.

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With this authority the VA secretary will be out of excuses for not holding accountable those who are responsible for the dysfunction and incompetence plaguing our VA system. It also strengthens whistleblower protections and extends the current probationary period for new employees to a minimum of 18 months.

While I believe that a majority of VA employees act in the best interest of our veterans and are passionate about the work they do, it is our duty to ensure that those who put their own interests before our veterans are fired, not protected.

As President Lincoln said, our nation has a duty "to care for him who shall have borne the battle." The House companion to the VA Accountability Act has already passed there, and it should become the law of the land. Shockingly, President Barack Obama has issued a veto threat, leaving just one question: Are we going to stand with our nation's veterans or the VA's inept bureaucrats?

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.