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Another View -- Steve Negron: Bringing overdue accountability to the VA

July 04. 2017 11:20PM

Independence Day is the observance of a free nation born. Protection of the free nation has sometimes meant the ultimate sacrifice — the lives of our American soldiers, secured by the commitment of millions of veterans for more than 241 years since we declared our independence. The Continental Army and Gen. George Washington began our defense of freedom at home, while our troops continue the battle today, taking the fight to the enemies of freedom. We must remember that veterans are our first line of defense and our last bastion of freedom. We should never take for granted what our veterans have given us. We owe it to them to continually strive to do better by them. We can always do better.

President Trump signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 into law in June. This law makes it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to remove bad employees and promote whistle-blowing. It is a first major step towards sweeping changes at the beleaguered agency, following many years of compromised legislation leading to the successful evolution in VA policy seen here.

Two years ago, the nation watched in horror as the VA wait-time scandal unfolded at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Departmental employees were making veterans wait so long for appointments that some veterans were dying because of it.

As the VA and Congress worked in tandem to clean up that mess, other scandals have continued to make headlines around the country.

Navy veteran Charles Richard Ingram III doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire next to a VA clinic. The last evidence of the life of Charles Richard Ingram III is a circle of scorched earth next to that clinic. Ingram, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, had been there before for treatment, but this would be his last visit.

VA executives fraudulently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation expenses. VA health care workers overprescribed opiate drugs. VA managers allowed a hospital construction project to go $1 billion over budget.

It was clear; the VA lacked the tools to discipline or remove its bad actors. Former VA Secretary Robert McDonald himself had admitted that there was a serious lack of accountability among his 335,000 employees.

When the VA cannot hold negligent employees accountable, everyone loses. Taxpayer dollars are being wasted on bonuses and resources for incompetent employees, delinquent supervisors, or coworkers. This ultimately gets in the way of the delivery of care and benefits to our veterans. Most egregiously, our veterans suffer because the people responsible for caring for them are putting themselves first, not our veterans. Not all employees are bad apples. It’s a sick system which needs to improve and evolve to meet the needs of our veterans.

This new law provides the VA the tools needed to manage accountability. The key is putting veterans first, period. Not bonuses.

Under this act, VA Secretary Dr. Shulkin will have greater authority to expedite the demotion, suspension, or removal of department employees based on bad performance or wrongdoing. It allows the secretary to take other punitive actions, like revoking bonuses or reducing pensions for executives who have been disciplined, and establishing a new authority in making executive hiring decisions. It provides better protection for whistleblowers by establishing a new office within the department to handle reports of wrongdoing and train employees on whistleblower rights, preventing management from taking retaliatory action against these courageous souls.

This act is a long overdue piece of legislation. Thank you to all the thousands of veterans who have spoken up in New Hampshire and across the nation refusing to go silently into the night. Your voices will never be silenced, your thoughts always heard, and now we have secured a most effective voice with this legislation.

Let us band together as veterans to never let bureaucracy taint the legacy we have forged with our fellow soldiers’ blood and all too many with their lives.

As the father of an active-duty service man and a veteran myself, our two generations are inextricably tied to the each other. We have a new voice in the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. Thank you fellow veterans’ activists. This was a long hard fight, I am proud of the effort and even prouder of your effectiveness.

Steve Negron is a United States Air Force veteran and a state representative from Nashua Ward 5.

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