Jul 24 2014

Yellowhammer: Shelby: Our veterans deserve better

Last week, I met with Robert McDonald, President Obama’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I shared with him my deep concerns regarding the failures of the VA system, and particularly the systemic problems at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS). I urged Mr. McDonald to review the specific allegations and mismanagement of the CAVHCS if he is confirmed. I believe the reported negligence at the VA is unforgivable, unacceptable, and just plain wrong.

Unfortunately, the Central Alabama VA has been at the forefront of disturbing practices in the VA Medical System recently and has the eighth longest average wait time in the nation. Whistleblowers at the Central Alabama VA allege that at least 900 veterans’ x-rays – some of which showed possible malignancies and abnormalities – were lost. Additionally, its pulmonologist was found to have falsified more than 1,200 patient records. Reports also indicate that the CAVHCS director was made aware of concerns regarding patient scheduling manipulation more than eight months before he took action.

While all of these acts of negligence are egregious, I am particularly concerned that the leadership reportedly ignored problems occurring under their watch. For example, the Central Alabama VA’s pulmonologist received a “satisfactory” performance review despite the fact that he was caught falsifying records more than once. Rewarding failure is shameful and does nothing to help the VA better serve those who have dutifully served our nation.

To make matters worse, the leadership of the Central Alabama VA has reportedly tolerated or encouraged whistleblower intimidation and retaliation that might have led to even more abuse. I have yet to see that proper action has been taken to mitigate the allegations made against the VA’s leadership or the employees who have actually committed the abuse. In that light, I have lost trust in the leadership at the CAVHCS and will call on Mr. McDonald to address these problems in a timely fashion.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson recently requested an additional $17.6 billion in funding in order to meet the needs of our nation’s veterans. I am skeptical that funding is the remedy for what ails the VA. In order to prevent further abuse, we must fight for accountability and corrective action. We cannot simply throw money at the problem if we expect to see real change.

While I respect Mr. McDonald’s willingness to take on this role, I question whether he would have a willing partner at the White House to tackle the VA’s tremendous challenges. Will he have the support that he needs to turn the VA’s massive bureaucracy into a hospital system that can fulfill its mission to honor and serve our veterans? It is my hope that Mr. McDonald, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will bring in a team of non-partisan individuals who have one priority – serving our veterans.

Our veterans in Alabama and across the country deserve better. They have earned these benefits through their dedicated service and sacrifice to our nation, and the alarming practices occurring at the VA are disgraceful. I remain committed to keeping our promise to our nation’s veterans and will do all that I can to ensure that they are provided with timely and effective health care services.