Jack Kelly: More rot at today’s VA

Top officials put their careers above the needs of veterans

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CNN’s Drew Griffin, whose reporting on secret waiting lists at the medical center in Phoenix led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, said a short time later that dysfunction and corruption are so widespread and deeply ingrained in the VA that just making a change at the top won’t change much.

“I don’t know how you fix this … other than I would throw out every senior manager in the VA,” Mr. Griffin told CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin June 23.

When he made that remark, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency set up to protect whistleblowers, was investigating 10 cases where VA employees said they were punished after reporting abuses to management. OSC now is investigating 67 charges of retaliation at 45 VA facilities in 28 states, its chief told the House Veterans Affairs Committee July 12.

Manipulation of data and retaliation against employees who report it appears to be as widespread in the Veterans Benefits Administration, which adjudicates disability claims, as in the Veterans Health Administration. The VA’s inspector general is looking into claims of data manipulation at VBA offices in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Kristen Ruell, a quality review specialist in Philadelphia, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee July 14 that, after she told Congress data was being falsified to hide long delays and errors in processing veterans’ claims, she was retaliated against.

“The VA’s problems are the result of morally bankrupt managers that through time and grade have moved up into powerful positions where they have the power to, and continue to, ruin people’s lives,” Ms. Ruell said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, sent two investigators to Philadelphia. One, Lauren Rogan, found in the ladies room a notebook left there by Lucy Filipov, acting regional director, containing instructions — apparently given to Ms. Filipov by Diana Rubens, deputy undersecretary for benefits — to ignore the investigators.

“Circled at the top of the page were the names of Ms. Ruell and another whistleblower,” reported Mark Flatten of the Washington Examiner.

The VA apparently tried to bug the office in which the congressional investigators were working.

More than 500 vets died or were gravely injured last year as a result of improper care, according to data obtained by the Washington Free Beacon under the Freedom of Information Act.

Val Riviello, a nurse at the medical center in Albany, told the OSC she was demoted after she reported stolen drugs and mistreatment of patients to superiors. Other nurses want to come forward, she said, but saw what happened to her and are afraid.

Dr. Christian Head testified that, after he’d reported time card fraud in the Greater Los Angeles health care system, his boss called him a “rat” in front of hundreds of employees. “Retaliation culture is a cancer to the VA,” he said.

Scott Davis, a program specialist in the Atlanta VBA center, sent White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors a note about wasteful spending and record purging. Shortly after, he was placed on involuntary leave.

Workers were shifted from processing veterans’ disability claims to work on Obamacare-related applications, Mr. Davis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“We do not work for veterans,” he said. “Our customer is the VA central office, the White House and Congress.”

Mostly, VA bureaucrats serve themselves. The VA systematically overpays administrators and support staff, in apparent violation of Civil Service rules, reported David Wood in the Huffington Post.

Overpayments from last September through May drained “tens of millions of dollars that could be used instead to ease the VA’s acute shortage of doctors and nurses,” he said.

Though the VA has known about the misclassifications for years, it still advertises jobs at improperly high salaries.

To obtain bonuses to which they were not entitled, managers at VA facilities altered records to conceal neglect that often has had fatal consequences. They’ve lied to Congress, stonewalled journalists, punished subordinates who’ve reported abuse of patients, theft of drugs, misappropriation of funds.

“It’s remarkable how often people inside this bloated government use the language and habits of organized crime,” wrote John Hayward in Human Events.

That’s why Drew Griffin’s proposed solution for the VA’s dysfunction may be too modest. Many senior managers should go to jail, not just to the unemployment office.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

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