USA TODAY | July 23, 2014
In the 1930s, people suffered through the summer with electric fans. Today, we have central air conditioning. In the 1930s, news came via radio and the morning newspaper. Now, we hear about worldwide events instantaneously with alerts on our smartphones. In the 1930s, the VA processed paper disability claims. Today, it does the same.
Created in 1930, Veterans Affairs is an 84-year-old bureaucracy that hasn’t adapted to a 21st century world. In an age of instant communication and data clouds, the VA uses a scheduling program, VistA, which is over a quarter-century old. We can track packages in real time, cash checks, and look up traffic all from our phones, but the VA is stuck in the old-tech, slow, and opaque system of yesteryear.
A generation into the information age, the bureaucracy of the VA remains impenetrable. As veterans suffered, many people in the VA hid the fact that veterans had to wait weeks or months for medical appointments. But unacceptable wait times were just the beginning.
Whistleblowers who spoke out against the neglect and abuse of veterans faced “harassment,” a VA employee said at a recent congressional committee hearing. The VA’s paper disability claim system is still overwhelmed with massive backlogs, leaving injured veterans uncompensated. On top of all of this, administrators who oversaw the scandals received generous bonuses and thousands of clerks, administrators, and support staff were incorrectly overpaid by millions of dollars.
The VA is steeped in a culture of ambivalence coupled with a lack of accountability, and no amount of funding can fix those problems. Washington’s traditional response of throwing money at the problem won’t change the fact that people in the VA hid problems and silenced internal critiques all while administrators received bonuses when they shouldn’t have. Only thorough modernization and a change in culture can fix the VA.
First and foremost, we must modernize the VA and transform it from a slow and unaccountable bureaucracy to a transparent, efficient, and accountable institution. In the past decade, companies like Google and Amazon have revolutionized the way we find and share information, purchase services, and live our lives. We have grown accustomed to ease, convenience, and clarity, and we should expect no less from our government.
In this same spirit, we must fix the paper disability claims system and end the claims backlog that leaves so many disabled veterans uncompensated. The Veterans Affairs Committee continues to investigate the disability claims backlog, and last year I sponsored legislation to fix this problem along with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. Though the House passed our proposal last year, the Senate has yet to consider it, and all the while our disabled veterans continue to wait.
As we lead the VA forward, we should never force veterans to travel hundreds of miles or to wait months on end for their medical appointments. Veterans facing extreme wait times or who live far from VA facilities should have the ability to choose to access private care covered by the VA. This is a key aspect of a separate proposal by Rep. Miller called the Veterans Access to Care Act.
Tellingly, even the Obama administration acknowledged that purely government-provided care is not effective. Almost a month after the scandal hit the newsstands, the administration’s first action was to allow some veterans to receive care at private hospitals, to try and relieve some of the long-term backlog in VA medical centers.
Lastly, we have to stop unnecessary and harmful job protection for VA employees who have blatantly failed our veterans. This is the heart of Rep. Miller’s bipartisan measure that has already passed the House.
In the private sector, employees who hide bad statistics and cover up abuses are promptly fired. To date, not a single VA employee has been fired because of the scandal. That is unconscionable and immoral.
A modern VA must accept the modern world and not cling to its old bureaucratic past. It must give veterans the ability to access private care, streamline its system, and remove bad employees who retain their jobs at the expense of our veterans.
Real reform is possible, but only if we unshackle ourselves from the old idea that more bureaucracy, more government, and more money will solve today’s problems.
It’s time to try something new. It’s time to build a 21st Century VA.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the majority leader-elect in the House Representatives.