Veterans Benefits Administration Under Secretary Allison Hickey on Friday stepped down from the Veterans Affairs Department, where VA Secretary Bob McDonald said he accepted her resignation "with regret."
Hickey had been under pressure to resign by some lawmakers and veterans organizations, most recently for allowing a VA senior executive to move into a job that she coerced her predecessor to leave. Diana Rubens, now director of VA regional office in Philadelphia, also picked up $274,000 in moving assistance, according to the VA's Office of the Inspector General, which recommended that Hickey should be disciplined for choosing Rubens.
The IG's findings also prompted The American Legion to renew its own call for Hickey to go, which it first made in 2014 after reports emerged of VA medical centers concealing the scope of veterans awaiting appointments by keeping names on unofficial lists.
McDonald made no reference to any VA scandal in announcing Hickey's resignation but praised her work with the department and her prior service with the U.S. Air Force.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs, and I personally, appreciate all that Allison has done to help transform VA for the veterans we are privileged to serve," McDonald said. "She has been an exceptional colleague and an even better friend, to me. Her commitment to excellence and service to our country is unquestioned, and we wish her all the best in her next endeavors."
McDonald credited Hickey with leadership in increasing to more than 5 million the number of veterans and survivors receiving monthly compensation and pension benefits, as well as reducing the claims backlog by nearly 90 percent – from 611,000 in 2013 to 75,316 currently, while also improving accuracy.
"Allison has served our country with honor for more than 30 years," McDonald said, "in the United States Air Force on active duty, in the Air National Guard, in the Air Force Reserve, [and] retiring with the rank of brigadier general as the director of the Air Force's Future Total Force office at the Pentagon, and here at VA as the Under Secretary for Benefits."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee grilled Hickey on numerous occasions about wait times for appointments, the disability claims backlog and more, said she "deserves credit for her military service and willingness to work on behalf of our nation's veterans [but] she was not cut out for the job of VA Under Secretary for Benefits."
"She leaves the department amid a damning office of inspector general report linking her to a scheme in which senior Veterans Benefits Administration officials abused their authority, resulting in the misuse of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars," Miller said.
Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, released a brief stating saying: "We thank Undersecretary Hickey for taking on one of the VA's toughest jobs. The VFW wishes her well in the future."
Other veterans groups were more critical.
"It is bittersweet for us" at The American Legion, said Verna Jones, executive director for the veterans service organization. "Under Secretary Hickey has done an exceptional job in service to our country, she served honorably [in the Air Force], but with all that is going on right now ... we don't believe she is the right person for this position."
"The backlog is going down but appeals is going up," she said.
The Legion first called for Hickey's resignation in 2014, along with those of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Under Secretary for Veterans Health Administration Dr. Robert Petzel. Shinseki ultimately tended his resignation to President Obama but not before directing Petzel to submit his.
But Hickey, who had come to the VA from Accenture, where she headed the Human Capital Management Program, refused to go.
"You know why? Because I came here for this mission," she told Military.com in August. "I came here for the people this mission serves. I gave up a very lucrative job in industry. I was happy where I was but this was a calling for me."
Peter Hegseth, chief executive officer for Concerned Veterans for America, called Hickey's resignation "long overdue and … a necessary step in making a semblance of progress in improving the culture at the Department of Veterans' Affairs."
"Hickey's department failed to meet even its most basic commitments to our veterans, forcing nearly a million veterans and their families to suffer through uncertainty regarding their claims and the benefits they have earned," he said. Hegseth maintained that Hickey's work to bring down the backlog in disability claims was little more than shifting much of the burden "to the hidden backlog of the appeals process."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the immediate challenge with Hickey's departure "is not just replacing one person but repairing a broken culture."
Blumenthal signed onto a letter with SVAC Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, and other members of the committee demanding McDonald hold accountable senior executives who manipulated the system in order to transfer jobs, move and pick up salary increases and moving assistance funds in order to get around salary and bonus restrictions.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com