President Barack Obama stands alongside Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald (L) during a ceremony in honor of Veteran's Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, November 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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“Solving these problems will demand far-reaching and complex changes."
After the Veterans Affairs waiting list scandal last year, the Obama administration pledged to vastly improve the department, but the agency's new leadership has done little to improve matters, a veterans advocacy group contends.
Those advocates worry one problem was traded for another. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald — brought in to clean up the mess after the waiting list scandal — has not acted swiftly enough, said John Cooper, spokesman for Concerned Veterans of America.
“Secretary McDonald has done very little to demonstrate his commitment to accountability and reform,” Cooper told TheBlaze. He added, “Secretary McDonald has clearly shown that when it comes to reforming the toxic culture at the VA, he is part of the problem, not the solution.”
The VA has more than 425,000 cases in the veterans appeals system, the Los Angeles Times reported. The report comes on the heels of the department's recent claims that those waiting 125 days or more for treatment has plummeted from 600,000 in 2014 to 80,000.
Cooper multiple criticisms of McDonald included the secretary's inflation of the number of people who had been disciplined. The Washington Post Fact Check column gave McDonald “Four Pinochios,” the worst ranking on the newspaper’s truth scale, for saying, “We have proposed disciplinary action against 300 individuals for manipulating scheduling.” Cooper also decried the secretary’s opposition to the VA Accountability Act, which would give the VA secretary the authority to fire employees who were unethical or incompetent.
The key problems, according to veteran advocates, are occurring in the Veterans Benefits Administration, which provides financial and other assistance to veterans and their families, and the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees various claims such as disability.
A congressionally mandated independent assessment of the VHA from September found the organization was in need of modernization to meet the needs of veterans.
“The Independent Assessment highlighted systemic, critical problems and confirmed the need for change that has been voiced by veterans and their families, the American public, Congress, and VHA staff,” the report says. “Solving these problems will demand far-reaching and complex changes that, when taken together, amount to no less than a system-wide reworking of VHA.”
However, the “VBA can be fixed,” Cooper said, “but only by leaders who are serious about rooting out inefficiency and changing the culture of the VA.”
“Just last week, the VA announced that top executives who scammed the relocation expenses program for their personal benefit will not be fired but simply demoted to other positions that will net them six-figure salaries and benefits,” Cooper said. “Without accountability and real reform at the VBA, these backlogs will continue to be routine, and veterans will continue to suffer for it.”
Last week, the VA announced that numerous employees directly involved in the waiting list scandal would not be fired, but demoted.
The L.A. Times reported that experts say the VA appeals process is structured in a way that one case could be endlessly appealed, in contrast to how cases would be handled in the courts.
"They're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said James Vale, director of benefits for Vietnam Veterans of America told the Los Angeles Times. "Congress doesn't give the VA enough money to hire the staff to do the job."
Vale added, "If they limit veterans to one appeal a claim, it makes the system more efficient at the detriment of veterans' rights.”
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