With the overwhelmingly bipartisan vote for the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, Congress passed the most significant reforms to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in decades. And, right on cue, here come the grumblings from the second-guessers.
As the bill was on its way to the president’s desk for signing, the critics stepped up to denounce the $16.3 billion congressional compromise.
For example, guests on a Fox News panel savaged the bill, claiming (implausibly) that it was “designed more for unions than veterans.” Meanwhile, an August 4 Wall Street Journal editorial suggests the additional funding for patient choice means that the “VA is being rewarded for failure.”
The argument is that the new legislation will do nothing more than prop up a failing bureaucracy. This represents a serious misreading of the bill’s key provisions.
Let’s go ahead and admit the VA reform package, like all legislative compromises, is imperfect. But the critics are missing the forest for the trees. After all, the flaws in the package can be addressed.
The reform package should not be seen as a one-time “silver bullet” cure for VA’s ills. It’s the first shot fired in what could—and should—be a forthcoming revolution in veterans’ care.
Among the most important reforms in the new law are enhanced accountability provisions, giving the VA secretary the power to immediately remove poorly performing, negligent, or corrupt senior managers. This is one of the most important reforms to the antiquated federal civil service system since the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the bill also will expand access to private sector care for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or who have been on a wait list for more than 30 days. This will ensure more timely care for these veterans in need, while injecting a healthy dose of private sector competition to the government-run system.
Neither of these fixes was “designed for unions.” The public sector unions at the VA opposed both provisions, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognized these were essential reforms. The challenge now is to ensure that the needed reforms are implemented properly.
To be sure, the critics raise several fair points. But much of the criticism rests on purist assumptions about what “should” have been done, instead of what was achievable in the existing political environment. Any reform package was going to have to pass through a Democratic-led Senate, and be signed by President Obama. This bill did that, and still retained the core of strong reforms.
And it was achieved at a lower than expected price tag. Initial estimates for the bill’s cost were over $50 billion a year. Thanks to the efforts of fiscal hawks in Congress and groups like ours, new funding was held to a much leaner $16.3 billion, the majority of which goes not to the bloated bureaucracy, but toward funding the patient choice provisions.
I’m no knee-jerk VA defender. Over the last two years, my organization, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), has been a steadfast critic of the VA bureaucracy, exposing the department’s dysfunction and failures when too many others preferred to look the other way. In return, we were vilified by VA officials and journalists sympathetic to the department bureaucracy. So when we say this bill is a promising start, that’s a considered judgment.
Likewise, Dr. Sam Foote, the retired physician at the Phoenix VA who blew the whistle on the department’s fraudulent scheduling practices, called the new reforms “a reasonable compromise” and “a very good first step.” But he also warned that we should watch carefully “to see what the VA will do with it.”