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Every Memorial Day, our news and social media channels are filled with images of heroic veterans, reminding us that all gave some, but some gave all. Typically, when we are honoring those who died in service to our country, we conjure up images of soldiers who died nobly on the battlefield, taking their last breath while shots blaze and bombs go off all-around them.
However, this Memorial Day, we must commit to honoring those who died for their country, albeit in a much less glamorous and unnecessary way those who died as a result of the Department of Veterans Affairs lack of accountability.
By now, the VAs woes since the patient wait-time scandal of 2014 first broke have been well-documented, including the fact that as many as hundreds of thousands of veterans have died as a result of inability to access VA care. From the current drama over the appointment of a new Secretary to Congresss cold feet on choice and caregiver expansion legislation (the latter of which looks like it will soon be remedied), veterans issues have enjoyed, albeit somewhat reluctantly, a top spot in the Trump administrations list of priorities.
Of the topics dominating the focus on veterans issues, first and foremost is choice, or the ability to pick a healthcare provider in your community or at the VA, rather than being forced to see one or the other as dictated by VA bureaucrats. What is talked about less and less, unfortunately, is the accountability component.
In the same way that the military commits to leaving no man behind, those that are committed to VA reform must not leave accountability behind. The accountability component is important, because, without it, we are forced to remember a large number of veterans on Memorial Day rather than celebrate with them on Veterans Day.
In 2014, issues surrounding VA choice and accountability went hand in hand. Indeed, the first legislation passed in response to the wait-time scandal was entitled Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act.
To their credit, the Trump administration attempted to tackle the accountability issue head on by creating the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. However, like many good ideas trusted to the VA for implementation, according to numerous whistleblowers, the VAOWP quickly became a tool used to further whistleblower retaliation, rather than to remedy it.
For example, take a look at the case of Dr. Dale Klein, the first VA whistleblower to have his case handled by the new VAOWP. Rather than providing a triumphant example of years of bureaucratic injustice being corrected and how veterans lives were saved by addressing his concerns, Kleins case demonstrated just the opposite. He was unceremoniously fired for failure to follow orders even though his orders included treating veterans in an unsanitary workspace and overprescribing prescription pain medicine.
Upon his arrival at the Poplar Bluffs VA Medical Center in Missouri, Klein raised these issues to the VA Office of the Inspector General, most notably his concerns about opioid prescriptions, which were subsequently substantiated in a June 2017 OIG report. Instead of fixing the problems and protecting Klein through the VAOWP, the VA fired him.
According to Dr. Klein, OAWP’s ostensible purpose is to hold management accountable for retaliating against whistleblowers. Unfortunately, administrators were not held accountable in my case, which has emboldened them to retaliate.
And, Dr. Kleins situation is not unique. According to Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, the VA is by far the most repressive federal agency in the government. Depending on the year, between a third and 40 percent of whistleblower retaliation complaints for the whole government comes from this one agency.
In other words, accountability at the VA is lacking much more than it is in the rest of the federal government.
Furthering this point, a new report from Whistleblowers of America, an organization that assists whistleblowers who have suffered from retaliation after having identified harm to individuals or the public, found that most whistleblowers find that the VAOWP has failed them. According to one whistleblower who contributed to the report, Whistleblowers would be better off if OAWP did not exist because it gives whistleblowers a false sense of security where none exists. And obviously, it wastes taxpayers money because OAWP is ineffective.
There is a saying that illusions never change into something real. Currently, many politicians take pleasure in finding VA accountability to be an issue they no longer need to deal with, due to the creation of the VAOWP. However, due to larger systemic issues within the VA, this is just an illusion; and real accountability is still lacking.
Despite this criticism, Devine acknowledges that the OAWP has made a good-faith effort to try to help whistleblowers, but add thats that the national VA office just doesn’t have the power to effectively police the local branches.
Thankfully, to this end, the House Veterans Affairs Committee hinted at a recent hearing that they were looking into such structural changes that may result in greater accountability, to include an overhaul of VAs VISN structure.
The VISNs are due for an overhaul, said committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. They should be the fail-safe mechanism when a medical center goes off course. Unfortunately, too many of them seem to be afflicted with a case of learned bureaucratic helplessness.
As we acknowledge this Memorial Day that there is no more noble pursuit than risking your life for your country, lets remember that risking ones life shouldnt carry over to ones dealings with the VA after service.
Rory E. Riley-Topping