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Profiles in Problem Solving: Obamacare vs. the Department of Veterans Affairs

Nov 11, 2013

Washington Times

Mere weeks after problems started surfacing with – the most visible public symbol of Obamacare – the Obama administration was clearly doing everything it could to fix the embattled website.

President Obama convened his top advisors for an Oval Office meeting to chart the way forward and appointed entrepreneur and former budget official Jeffrey Zients, who the Washington Post described as “President Obama’s weed-wacker,” to lead the repair effort. Obama addressed the issue head on during an Oct. 21 press event, when he said people are “working overtime, 24/7,” to fix the site and that, “we’ve had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team.  And we’re well into a ‘tech surge’ to fix the problem.”  

But the size, scope and urgency of the Obama administration’s effort to right the course of stands in contrast to its hands-off approach to the string of problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

After decades of mismanagement, VA is struggling to deal with a host of serious issues that are negatively impacting veterans and dragging the department’s reputation through the mud. 

As of Nov. 2, the VA backlog – the number of VA disability compensation claims pending for more than 125 days – stood at more than 400,000. And while the department has made some progress chipping away at the problem over the last few months, VA still missed its fiscal year 2013 claims processing goal by nearly 100,000.

Meanwhile, claim appeals have risen by more than 15,000 since the backlog began to shrink in early April, raising questions about whether the department is simply moving some backlogged cases from one queue to another.

But VA’s problems go beyond the backlog. Americans have watched in disbelief as news reports of preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country have surfaced over the past year. At least 17 veterans are dead from lapses in care VA’s own inspector general has attributed to mismanagement or negligence.

Through it all, a shocked public has learned that the VA executives who presided over exponential increases in the backlog and untimely veteran deaths are more likely to have received cash bonuses than any sort of punishment.

Though VA’s problems had been festering for years under both Democrat and Republican administrations, many were hopeful when President Obama decided to discuss the challenges facing America’s returning heroes at the 2013 Disabled American Veterans convention last August. I, for one, was disappointed with the president’s speech.

To be clear, President Obama was right to speak directly to veterans. But his Aug. 10 address was notable for what he didn’t say.

The president made no reference to the oft-cited 2015 goal VA has set for ending the backlog, even though he is the only person with the power to make sure VA lives up to its word.  He did not pledge to ensure VA and Department of Defense cooperation in developing a joint, integrated electronic health record, even though there is near universal agreement such a step would help shrink the backlog. And the president did not mention any actions he is taking to address VA’s well-documented lack accountability for failing executives – an issue contributing to many of the department’s most serious challenges.

As commander-in-chief, President Obama is the only person in a position to hold VA leaders directly accountable, and his leadership and personal involvement is essential to solving these problems.

Obviously, the mounting complications with Obamacare, a law that will affect almost every American, deserve immediate attention. But shouldn’t the administration treat the issues plaguing VA – an agency charged with delivering benefits and services to more than 20 million American veterans – with a similar sense of urgency?

Mr. President, we know your administration is committed to fixing by November 30. What about a personal commitment from you to end the backlog by 2015, just as VA leaders have promised?

Mr. President, now that you’ve instituted a “tech surge” to remedy the problems with, how about a similar surge to ensure VA and DoD produce a joint electronic health record integrated across all VA and DoD components?

Mr. President, since you put a proven problem solver in charge to bring accountability to the repair effort, perhaps you could install someone with related skills at VA to put a stop to the pattern of preventable deaths at VA medical centers and ensure that department executives are held responsible – rather than rewarded – for their mistakes.

Is it too much to ask for the Obama administration to tackle the problems at VA with the same unrelenting determination it’s directing toward

I think not.

The question is, does President Obama agree?