There are two especially sad aspects of former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki's recent departure from that position. The first is his observation that “I can't explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during my 38 years in uniform. I cannot defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do.” It's not as if Shinseki couldn't have known about that lack of integrity. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., repeatedly told him in the last two years that his own people weren't telling him the truth, and numerous press reports in the Washington Examiner and elsewhere exposed widespread dereliction in the department.
They weren’t telling Shinseki the truth about why VA’s longstanding backlog of unfinished benefit claims from veterans and their families continued to grow despite assignment of more resources to shrink it. And they weren’t telling the truth about why waiting times for veterans seeking medical care steadily grew longer or the increased incidence of veterans dying as a result of those delays. Shinseki wasn’t told because too many VA executives feared that millions of dollars in employee bonuses would be lost if the truth ever became known in VA’s highest office.
|Lack of staff isn't VA's problem, either: Its 320,000 civil servants make it the largest civilian workforce in the federal government.|
Those bonuses aren’t chump change. As the Examiner’s Mark Flatten reported on May 8, 2013, Lois Mittelstaedt, chief of staff for the Veterans Benefit Administration, “collected performance bonuses of almost $108,000 over five years,” while “Diana Rubens, the deputy undersecretary for field operations, who oversees the 57 regional offices, got almost $97,000. Both had a salary of $179,700 in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available.” During those same five years, the time required for VA to process benefits claims doubled to 325 days.
Having served as director of the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan administration, Donald Devine has a unique insight into the federal bureaucracy. On lengthening wait times, Devine noted recently in The American Conservative magazine that "after many requests, the VA announced in 2000 that it would finally overhaul its decrepit, quarter-century-old scheduling process. After $127 million and nine years, the VA gave up the project without adopting any improvements. Implementing a medical records system that would integrate military and veteran systems was abandoned after almost $1 billion in spending.”
Despite such obvious problems, Devine said, VA's budget in the years spanning the Bush and Obama administrations skyrocketed from $27 billion in 2003 to $57 billion in 2013, a 106 percent increase. Lack of staff isn't VA's problem, either: Its 320,000 civil servants make it the largest civilian workforce in the federal government. And that brings this analysis to the second of the especially sad aspects noted at the outset. There are thousands of honest, dedicated career civil servants in VA who should be running the department. That won't happen until Congress empowers VA's new leadership to get rid of the deadwood from top to bottom without fear of federal employee union opposition.