IAVA: Post 9/11 Vet Best Suited to Head VA

IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff speaks on Capitol Hill.

The head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America on Monday said President Obama must name a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs as soon as possible, and strongly suggested it should be someone from "the post-9/11 generation" of veterans.

"We're not saying exclusively a post-9/11 veteran," IAVA Founder and Chief Executive Officer Paul Rieckhoff said. "We want it to be somebody who comes from that community or is extremely familiar with it. Because we are the growing need, we are the future."

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday following the confirmation by the VA's Inspector General that VA executives had manipulated waiting lists for veterans care across the system.

Rieckhoff did not offer any names during the mid-morning press conference in Washington that the organization called to lay out eight steps that must be taken to restore veterans' trust in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"What we need is a Marshall Plan for veterans," said Rieckhoff, referring to a plan drafted by Gen. George Marshall for rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.

Though IAVA is open to a qualified veteran from any generation, Rieckhoff said the 2.8 million member post-9/11 veteran pool has the energy and technical savvy necessary for a modern VA.

"Our average member is in their late 20s," he said. "You've got to turn the VA from Borders to Amazon – that's the challenge here. And the person's got to show they can demonstrate that kind of talent to get the job done."

Rieckhoff said Monday there must be criminal investigation into the VA officials and staff who are found to have manipulated patient wait times. If the allegations are found to be true, anyone responsible should be prosecuted and sent to jail if found guilty, he said.

IAVA also said it wants Congress to pass a Senate bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The bill would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire non-performing managers, including those in the Senior Executive Service.

Sanders bill includes a provision to let veterans unable to get timely appointments with VA doctors to go to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors. It would also authorize the VA to lease 27 new community health facilities in 18 states. The last provision is something that Sanders had in a veterans bill that was shot down by Senate Republicans months ago.

Finally, Sanders' bill would look to boost the number of doctors in the VA system by authorizing the National Health Service Corps to award scholarships to medical school students and to forgive college loans for doctors and nurses who go to work at the VA.

Shinseki, in his last speech before resigning on Friday, urged Congress to pass Sanders' bill.

The group also wants Congress and the White House to fund the VA to levels recommended by the annual Independent Budget, which last year sought $4 billion more in discretionary medical services funds than was finally appropriated.

Additionally, the group wants passage of the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, as well as an executive order from the White House to expand resources and service for veterans at risk of suicide. About 22 veterans take their own lives each day, according to the VA.

Some of IAVA's changes have already been acted on.

These include VA implementing the recommendations included in the interim Inspector General's report on the Phoenix scandal. The IG confirmed the gaming of the appointments schedule in Phoenix and found similar manipulation occurring elsewhere within the VA system.

These steps included a nationwide review of all facilities, an audit of new appointment requests across the system to ensure all veterans are seen, and immediate outreach to veterans in Phoenix to make sure they get the care they need.

Shinseki said on Friday that the VA already began acting on the IG recommendations.

Rieckhoff said VA has a long history of problems that have only now become widely known because of the allegations out of Phoenix. But he said IAVA is concerned that opportunity to reform the VA will be missed if the American public takes its attention off the issue.

"After decades of neglect, years of failure and weeks of controversy, all of America is finally focused on our nation's veterans," he said. "As a result of the scandal that broke in Phoenix, the sacred trust in the VA has been broken.

"But it can be rebuilt," he said. "With leadership, creativity and tenacity the VA can be stronger in the broken places."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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