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Fix the VA, Mr. President

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has threatened to shut down hospitals in August unless it receives a budget add-on of $3 billion. The VA released this shocking news this month, capping off years of mismanagement and a blatant lack of transparency and accountability. It is long past time for President Barack Obama to become personally engaged in fixing VA.
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Fix the VA, Mr. President

Only presidential leadership can end years of mismanagement

By Jeff Miller

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 21, 2015

http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2015/07/21/Fix-the-VA-Mr-President/stories/201507210020

The Department of Veterans Affairs has threatened to shut down hospitals in August unless it receives a budget add-on of $3 billion.

The VA released this shocking news this month, capping off years of mismanagement and a blatant lack of transparency and accountability. The department can’t seem to meet any of its vital responsibilities — providing health care, approving disability benefits and constructing hospitals — without going billions over budget and falling years behind schedule.

It is long past time for President Barack Obama to become personally engaged in fixing VA.

The embattled VA is trying to blame Congress for its latest budget crisis, despite attempts to evade congressional oversight every step of the way. In March, the VA reported it was running under budget for the year. Secretary Robert A. McDonald testified four times this year without mentioning a massive shortfall.

In June, the VA requested permission to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for medical care to pay for a bungled construction project in Denver (itself a billion-dollar debacle that the VA denied for years until held to account in court).

I called a June 25 hearing on the VA budget after receiving conflicting reports from VA employees. Only then did the department finally disclose a $2.6 billion shortfall, claiming that without more resources it would start denying health-care referrals to non-VA facilities in August. Just two weeks later, the VA said it needed $3 billion or it would suspend all non-VA referrals at the end of July and begin shutting down hospitals next month. This is not the first time the VA has disclosed problems far too late, turning mismanagement into a fiscal emergency.

The brave men and women who served our nation must not be penalized for the VA’s failures, so once again Congress must prevent VA incompetence from harming veterans.

The list of failures is long and proves the VA’s problems are systemic. More than a year after 110 facilities across the country maintained secret waiting lists, only two lower-level employees have been fired for wait-time manipulation.

At the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, officials covered up a problem with Legionnaire’s Disease for more than a year. As at least a half-dozen veterans died, hospital administrators repeatedly failed to adhere to proven legionella-control measures while senior executives misled Congress. Two years after the outbreak, the director was forced out and received a settlement in return for not appealing the decision.

Our veterans deserve better than this ongoing circus of failure, coverup and scandal. Even if we give the VA all the money it asks for, I have come to expect the department will release more shockingly bad news next week, next month and next year.

Crisis after crisis, there is one person consistently absent from the discussion. Although we may disagree on many points, dedicated citizens in Congress — Republicans and Democrats — and in the VA are working to ensure that America fulfills its commitment to those who served. But there is no substitute for leadership by the commander-in-chief. The person our Constitution has vested with the power to execute the laws and who is most able to demand action from the department is the president of the United States.

The president must step up. If there is truly a crisis so severe as to threaten the closing of VA hospitals, the president should be sounding the alarm. Just as speeches from the bully pulpit matter, so does a president’s silence.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

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