Nebraskans know how to honor veterans. Our state’s strong commitment to the men and women who serve was on full display last month, when we came together to carry out the largest honor flight for Vietnam Veterans in history. The trip was made possible by the generosity of Nebraskans from all across our state, young and old.
Ensuring veterans have access to quality health care is one of the many ways we thank them for their selfless sacrifice to our nation. But for years now, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has remained clouded by controversy. Despite steps taken to address the issues at the VA, scandals continue to linger, showing our veterans are not always put first.
In the spring of 2016, the Chief of Specialty Care Clinics at the VA office in Phoenix, Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, made a startling confession: two years after the scandal that revealed our veterans were dying as they waited for health care, the VA hadn’t completely changed. Rodriguez told local news that schedulers were purposely deleting patient appointments and marking the changes as made by the patients, including, in some cases, making it appear as though deceased veterans had called to change appointments. This continued even after he told VA Director Deborah Amdur about the problem.
Enough is enough.
It’s time for real reform at the VA, and that’s why I recently supported Sen. Marco Rubio’s Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act (VAAWP). Members of the Senate can come together, and we recently passed this legislation unanimously. It builds on previous work done by Congress and ensures that those who earned health care benefits by serving our country aren’t forgotten.
Since the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (Choice Act) in 2014, which expanded health care options for veterans and allowed VA officials to fire poor-performing employees, Congress has continued to uncover mismanagement and misconduct from VA employees. Many VA employees are excellent at their jobs and they work tirelessly to serve our veterans. Unfortunately, today’s civil service rules still often fail to reprimand those who don’t live up to the VA’s promise of treating veterans with dignity and respect.
The VAAWP would reform our nation’s civil services system within the VA while keeping due process for workers. Personnel decisions would be accelerated by tightening up the timeline for firing processes and through the lowering of the burden of proof needed to dismiss bad employees. It would also allow the VA Secretary to reduce benefits and rescind bonuses for those who are underperforming. These reforms would apply to both senior executive positions and the rank and file.
The VAAWP also empowers whistleblowers, like Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, to serve as the first line of defense against corruption by allowing them to come forward without having to fear retaliation from bureaucrats. Under this bill, the secretary would be directed to provide training on whistleblower protections and general workplace management. The secretary would also report to Congress on employee morale.
We must ensure that those who risked their lives defending our country have access to timely and effective health care. Last Congress, I was proud to spur change within the VA through the CHIP IN for Vets Act, which gives local communities, like Omaha, a pathway to assist with the design and construction of VA health care facilities. I will continue to work on legislation like the CHIP IN for Vets Act and the VAAWP so that our veterans are assured the quality health care they have earned.
Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.