FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- President Barack Obama on Thursday signed major Veterans Affairs Department legislation intended to speed up access to healthcare for thousands of veterans and hold accountable any executives deemed to be incompetent or abusing their positions.
The $16.3 billion Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act expands community healthcare options for veterans who face long wait times or commutes; funds the hiring of more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers; and improves accountability by making it easier for the agency secretary to fire problem executives.
“Over the last few months we’ve discovered some inexcusable misconduct at some VA health care facilities,” Obama said during a signing ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He cited long wait times for care and employees “cooking the books” to hide the delays.
“This is wrong. It’s outrageous, and working together we set out to fix it,” Obama said. He warned that those found culpable of manipulating data or covering up problems need to go, and also praised whistleblowers who brought problems to the media and public’s attention.
“If you engaged in an unethical practice, if you covered up serious problems, you should be fired. Period,” he said. “And if you blow the whistle on unethical practices or bring a problem to the attention of higher ups, you should be thanked. You should be protected for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t be ignored and you certainly shouldn’t be punished.”
Some officials have already been relieved of duties and investigations into the matter continue, the president said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chair the veterans' affairs committees in their respective chambers, negotiated the final legislation as co-chairmen of the conference committee.
"In a dysfunctional Congress, I'm glad we accomplished something significant for veterans," Sanders said in a statement. "This legislation will go a long way toward ending unacceptably long waiting times for veterans to access health care and allow the VA the resources to hire the doctors, nurses and other medical staff it needs to address these problems over the long term."
Miller could not make the signing ceremony because of a previously scheduled oversight visit to the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, with Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas.
But in a statement he said he was "pleased President Obama has finally recognized what we have been telling administration officials for years: that VA's widespread and systemic lack of accountability is jeopardizing the health of veterans and contributing to all of the department's most pressing problems.
"I sincerely hope the president views this event as more than just a photo-op or speaking engagement. Instead, it should serve as a wakeup call," Miller said.
The legislation passed Congress the same week the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald, a West Point grad, Army veteran and former chief executive officer for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co., to be secretary of veterans affairs.
McDonald took over from Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, an undersecretary at the department installed temporarily to lead the agency in May after Eric Shinseki resigned amidst the growing scandal.
But neither McDonald's appointment nor the VA reform legislation is halting congressional inquiries into mismanagement at the agency.
Just this week, Miller accused VA officials of deliberately misleading his committee on the number of veteran deaths since 1999 were linked to delays in medical consultations.
In a letter to McDonald dated Aug. 4, Miller said agency health care officials testified several times that a VA review of 250 million consults since 1999 determined that 23 patients died from gastrointestinal illnesses because of delays in medical consultation. Not only were the review dates given in testimony by Under Secretary for Health Carolyn Clancy and Assistant Deputy Undersecretary Thomas Lynch, but were noted in an April fact sheet the VA provided Miller's committee.
Miller said the VA now concedes that the actual review only covered the years 2010 to 2012, but has not explained why the actual dates were not provided.
"They tried to misdirect Congress and the American people away from the facts," Miller told The Tampa Bay Times in an interview. "I think they got caught and now they are trying to modify their story ... The misdirection was, in fact, designed in Washington."
Miller is now demanding to know who was responsible for the fact sheet, how they are being held accountable for the misinformation and the actual number of deaths linked to consult delays back to 1999, where they occurred and how the numbers were determined or discovered.
Wait times for care has been a problem for the VA for some time, but gained national attention in May after whistleblowers at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, told CNN that up to 40 patients on a secret wait list may have died before getting an appointment.
Subsequent VA investigations confirmed some 35 veteran deaths linked to the lists, which the hospital maintained to conceal the scope of their wait-times problems. Investigators also concluded that such manipulation of patient data was systemic throughout the VA.
Additionally, some executives were pulling in thousands of dollars a year in bonuses that at least in part were based on meeting VA standards on wait times.
Officials say some of these VA managers and executives could face criminal charges for directing the manipulation of data or appointments.
American Legion Legislative Director Louis Celli was happy to see the bill passed and signed, but said, “This is not the time to set back in your chair, put your feet up on the desk and say everything is done now and the VA is fixed.
“The provisions [of the bill] need to be enacted,” he said. “And we’ll be working with and we’ll be watching the VA to make sure they’re carried out and that the money is spent wisely, so veterans get the health care they need.”
Celli said the Legion will also be watching how McDonald fares during his first few months on the job. “We will issue a report on the first 100 days to say where we see the agency under his leadership is going and where he is going,” he said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.