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Senate needs to take up VA Accountability Act

Spend some time with military veterans, and you’ll hear a common theme: frustration and despair at the difficulty of dealing with the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Those concerns have taken on a greater sense of urgency over the last two years, as the VA’s deep dysfunction has been exposed and Americans have come to understand how the department is failing veterans. But there is a remedy, and it begins with greater accountability for VA employees.

An endless stream of media reports, government inspections and congressional investigations have revealed the ugly truth about impenetrable bureaucracy, a never-ending backlog of veterans disability claims, inexcusably long wait times for health care, epic waste of taxpayer dollars and other abuse. Nevada veterans are well aware of these problems. The Reno VA Regional Office was named in 2014 as the worst in the nation for processing claims, and still ranks as a poor performer, while long wait times for health care are typical at the VA medical center in North Las Vegas.

As a veterans advocate, I hear their stories almost daily. A fellow Air Force veteran in Las Vegas tells of filing a VA claim in 2011 for a service-connected illness dating to his 1990 Desert Shield service, where he contracted sand fly fever. As a result, he suffers from chronic pain and an array of respiratory, heart and neurological troubles. VA record-keeping errors and technological failures delayed his claim for nearly three years before it was finally approved, thanks in part to assistance from Rep. Dina Titus. In that sense, he’s one of the lucky ones.

The VA’s supporters (a rapidly dwindling number) claim these chronic inefficiencies stem from a lack of funding. That claim falls apart when you consider that the VA budget has more than doubled over the last decade to meet increased demand.

Here’s the hard truth: no amount of additional funding will fix what’s wrong at the VA without first changing how the department operates. And that reform begins with heightened accountability. Look at any high-functioning organization, and you’ll find that one of the keys to success is that each individual’s performance is tied to results. But not in the bureaucratically protected world of the VA. Workers and executives with proven patterns of failure, misconduct and abuse face no consequences for poor performance — whether it’s wasting taxpayer resources or endangering the health of veterans.

The VA’s status quo bureaucracy protects those poor performers, and their stories overshadow and undermine the sincere efforts of the many employees who truly do seek to serve veterans.

In Congress, the bipartisan VA Accountability Act, which empowers the VA secretary to remove poor performers quickly, passed the House last summer, but has stalled in the Senate. Congressional leaders should push for passage of this critical legislation this year—while voters can hold lawmakers seeking re-election accountable for their positions.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller has been steadfast in his support of VA reform, but has not yet signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill. Nor has Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Both should lend their names and support to this much-needed reform.

They should also take a closer look at a recent poll conducted by The Tarrance Group for Concerned Veterans for America, which found 93 percent of veterans support stronger accountability for VA workers. Or they should talk to the numerous groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS, who have endorsed this legislative fix to the VA’s chronic personnel management problems. These groups recognize that the status quo isn’t working.

Nevada is home to more than 226,000 veterans. They deserve an up-or-down vote on the VA Accountability Act, so we can know who among our elected officials is willing to stand with us and who sides with the bureaucrats.

If we’re going to improve the VA’s ability to provide quality healthcare in a timely manner, we first need to change the way the VA works. That begins with demanding the same type of accountability from VA employees that we would reasonably expect in any other high-functioning organization.

— Leo Garcia, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1986 to 1994, is Nevada director of Concerned Veterans for America.

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