Guest Blog by: Congressman French Hill [R-AR2] - As a former executive in private business, I know firsthand the true value of accountability in the workplace. The success of any operation—whether it is in the private sector or in government—is dependent upon the employees and management being held to the highest standards for ethics, excellence, and customer service. While the private sector excels at this, the federal government often fails miserably. And, there is seemingly no federal agency less committed to accountability than the one charged with providing care and benefits to our veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to make headlines for negligence, data manipulation, corruption, and failure to carry out its overall mission. Last year, with the help of substantial whistleblower testimony, congressional oversight and the VA Office of the Inspector General (VAOIG) revealed that 110 VA facilities were using “secret wait lists” to manipulate wait times for veterans seeking care from the VA healthcare system. Per the VAOIG, in Phoenix alone, the use of “secret wait lists” contributed to the deaths of 40 veterans. The new VA hospital in Denver is more than $1 billion over budget. The $1.73 billion price tag that rests on the taxpayers’ shoulders is more than five times the original cost estimate. Earlier this year in Little Rock, we were exposed to a less disturbing, but equally perplexing, construction management failure when it was revealed VA spent $8 million to install solar panels that it never connected and then removed for a parking deck that was planned prior to the panels’ installation. Despite these damning revelations, it took VA over a year to fire a single employee in connection with the “secret wait lists,” and there has been virtually no accountability for these major construction blunders. You would be hard pressed to find an executive in the private sector who wouldn’t immediately identify and remove the employees responsible for such incompetence and mismanagement. Any company that would fail to do so would quickly lose the confidence of its investors and customers and go out of business. In July 2014, in response to the major healthcare scandal, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (VA Choice Act). The VA Choice Act gave VA the explicit authority to send veterans out of the VA system to receive healthcare if they are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days or reside more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. This monumental reform bill provided VA $10 billion to cover the costs of the increased access to non-VA care and a multitude of other additional resources needed to provide timely access to healthcare. This past July, a year after the VA Choice Act was signed into law, VA officials returned to Congress to request $3 billion to cover a funding shortfall for the VA healthcare system. This is just inexcusable. If a lack of funding were the issue, then VA’s failures would have ended a long time ago. Since this President took office six years ago, VA’s funding levels have increased roughly $70 billion. While the budget at VA has skyrocketed, accountability has not, and the status quo at VA remains an embarrassing breach of the taxpayers trust, and more disastrously a breach of the veterans trust. However, Congress is offering up a bipartisan solution this problem. At the end of July, a bill that I cosponsored, H.R. 1994, the VA Accountability Act of 2015, passed the House. This bill is supported by all of the major Veterans Services Organizations and is designed for one purpose; to protect veterans from the bureaucrats who do not have their best interest at heart. H.R. 1994 gives the VA Secretary the ability to fire or demote any employee based on performance and misconduct. If the President signs this bill into law, there will no longer be any excuse for the pervasive lack of accountability that has spread throughout this 330,000 person department. Most importantly, this bill helps veterans. It also gives the taxpayer a level of comfort that their money will be used effectively and protects the reputation of the hundreds of thousands of honest and decent people at VA who excel at their job and work tirelessly to care for our veterans. Make no mistake about it, the majority of people who work at VA fit that description. The veterans of Central Arkansas are fortunate to have one of the top facilities in the entire country in our state. The Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center, more commonly known as Fort Roots, is populated by some of the hardest working, innovative, and dedicated employees VA has to offer. The mental health care our local veterans receive from Fort Roots has received national attention for its innovation. The management, doctors, and rank-and-file employees work tirelessly to give veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury a chance for rehabilitation. Sadly, a large number of VA facilities don’t operate the same way as Fort Roots, and the mismanagement from Washington, D.C., and across the country has stunned veterans, Congress, and taxpayers. Although, in order to ensure the proper care of our Nation’s heroes, Congress fulfilled VA’s request for the additional $3 billion, we did so through the transfer of interagency funds, which added no additional cost to taxpayers and instituted necessary reforms and additional congressional oversight of the VA’s budget. Congress has laid the groundwork at VA for a seismic cultural shift whereby any budget increases will be accompanied by equivalent increases in accountability standards. It is now on the President and VA Secretary Bob McDonald to use every tool at their disposal to create an environment where all employees adhere to one simple mission: caring for veterans. All eyes are on them, watching and expecting to see change and concrete results. # # # # French Hill represents Arkansas’s Second Congressional District. He was actively engaged in the Arkansas business community for two decades as a commercial banker and investment manager. He was founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Delta Trust & Banking Corp., which was headquartered in Little Rock and recently merged with Arkansas-based Simmons First National Corp. Prior to his community banking work in Arkansas, Mr. Hill served as a senior official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. From 1989 until 1991, Mr. Hill served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Corporate Finance, where one of his key assignments was representing the United States as a negotiator in the historic bilateral talks with Japan known as the Structural Impediments Initiative (SII). [Military.com welcomes elected officials and agency officials to contribute to the discussion on the Military Advantage blog -- regardless of political affiliation. Interested individuals need only contact the editor.]
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