From the Grammy Awards to the Pro Bowl, it is an American tradition to start the new year by celebrating last year’s successes. These celebrations may seem indulgent, but they serve a purpose: to remind us about achievements that might otherwise be forgotten. Just like sports or entertainment, the end of the year dominated headlines when it came to what Congress accomplished (or didn’t) in 2017.
The push to pass tax cuts was hectic and eventful, with even Republicans saying a major legislative victory was needed after several attempts to repeal Obamacare failed. Yet there was another legislative victory in 2017, one at least as impressive as tax cuts in almost every way: reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill may have passed in another era — last June — but it should not be forgotten.
Fully known as the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, this bill brought bipartisan reform to a major government agency that has often failed to serve perhaps the most cherished group of American citizens. The bill was only the first step in a long reform process, but it has already made a meaningful difference.
For decades, veterans have traded stories of VA incompetence like they were military-exclusive baseball cards. We were told to wait for months for medical appointments, and resolving other problems was nearly impossible. The VA billing office was infamous for almost never picking up the phone, even after veterans spent hours on hold. Yet calling was your only option, as the VA treated email like an alien technology from a distant future.
Multiple news stories confirmed veterans’ complaints were not just whining. Not only were wait-times egregious, but several VA offices had falsified records to meet scheduling goals. Several veterans died awaiting medical appointments that were never coming. The level of callousness was shocking, even to those of us with experience in the VA system.
Yet for years, these scandals were not enough to prompt meaningful change.
Previous reform efforts had stalled due to complaints from unions public sector unions about changing the rules regarding which VA employees could be fired. Instead of protecting VA employees from unfairness, these rules made them invincible. Commit an armed robbery while working for the VA? Not only was your job safe, you were entitled to a years-long appeal process against any punishment, and to be paid – including bonuses – the entire time that your case was tied up in the system, including the time you spent in jail before pleading guilty.
Instead of rewarding employees who exposed secret lists of patients who never got appointments, the VA punished them more harshly than those who created the lists in the first place.
More common bureaucratic mistakes, such as losing paperwork, were even harder to deal with. Morale at the agency was among the lowest in the U.S. government, partly because hard-working VA employees were forced to watch incompetent and indolent coworkers escape any consequences. The agency had trouble filling open positions, both for medical providers and those that aid them in providing effective care.
The VA reform legislation put an end to the worst aspects of this farce. It codified the agency’s office to protect whistleblowers and mandated training on the subject for all employees. It also gave the head of the VA more flexibility to discipline senior leaders and expedite the removal process for those being fired. As a result, over 1,500 underperforming employees have been let go, and more than 70 whistleblowers have been protected against retaliation for speaking out.
This is bipartisan reform that has worked. Perhaps that is why, outside of a brief mention in the State of the Union speech, neither side is touting it — the credit would have to be shared. But VA reform was a noteworthy achievement on an important issue, and it should be remembered as such, especially as Congress struggles to find bipartisan solutions to the country’s many challenges.
John McGlothlin, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, is counsel at Cause of Action Institute, a Washington, D.C. non-profit oversight group advocating for economic freedom and individual opportunity.
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