Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek says the legacy of bureaucratic mismanagement at the Veterans Administration runs long and deep, something he says he knows about not only as a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee but also as a VA surgeon for 20 years.
Benishek is in his second House term. He left his medical career and won an open seat in 2010, after Democrat Bart Stupak elected to retire following his role in the passage of the new health care laws. Benishek, who served at a hospital in Iron Mountain, Michigan, says the problems with VA management were obvious a long time ago.
“I know what that bureaucracy is like. It was very frustrating for me to get stuff done within the system. One of the greatest examples was that the director of the hospital would leave every two years. That happened for 20 years. So a guy comes in. For six months, he doesn’t know where the bathroom is. The next year he’s there. In the last six months he’s worried about his next job. That’s just a flaw in the management. There’s no real leadership because there’s transition at the top. Since I’ve been in Congress they’ve changed that,” said Benishek.
During his career as a surgeon, Benishek split time between the traditional local hospital and the VA facility. While Iron Mountain is considered to have one of the better VA facilities, Benishek says the difference between the two was obvious.
“There’s no way the VA is as efficient as the private sector. The people that are providing the care, the nurses and doctors, the people that provide the direct patient care are good people. They’re working hard and they care for the veterans. The problem is they’re just not managed right. They have millions of dollars to spend on new windows but they don’t have thousands of dollars to hire another anesthetist,” said Benishek.
“It’s stuff like that that’s so frustrating and people making decisions at the upper levels make it difficult for people who are trying to provide the best care they can,” he said.
Since coming to Washington and serving on the House Veterans’ Affairs, Benishek says his frustrations with the VA persist but now it’s even higher-ranking bureaucrats causing the grief.
“Nobody’s really accountable. I get sick and tired of these bureaucrats and undersecretaries coming before us to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know there’s a problem and we’re working on it. Honestly, we’re going to have a fix in awhile.’ It gets pretty frustrating when veterans are dying and nobody gets punished for it,” said Benishek.
“In the private sector, if you don’t do your job you get fired. In the VA that doesn’t happen. We have a hard time finding out who is responsible for the mismanagement in different areas. You ask somebody to come before you on the committee. If there’s a problem in the Pennsylvania VA, you ask the people from the Pennsylvania VA to come but the VA doesn’t produce them. They produce somebody in the VA three or four levels to try to not let the guy testify about how bad things are,” said Benishek.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved the VA Accountability Act by a vote of 390-33. The legislation would give greater latitude to the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire personnel for incompetence or nonperformance. Benishek stresses that the secretary already has that power but it is seldom used.
“The problem is that so many people in the VA aren’t judged on performance. That’s a culture that we have to change. That’s a culture that should be in place already. For example, if somebody doesn’t do what the inspector general says needs to be fixed, who is that person? Why is the fact that they didn’t reply to an inspector general’s report put on their promotion record? Why are they still getting bonuses if they don’t comply with the inspector general? Why are they getting advancement? Why isn’t there punishment for not getting their job done?” asked Benishek.
“That’s the kind of stuff we need to put a stop to and hopefully it really is the will of the administration to do that kind of work. We’re prodding them to do more of it,” he said.
While the House vote was lopsided, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the lower chamber, strongly opposed it. He suggests the bill would leave career civil servants at the mercy of political appointees.
“All of us are outraged at the allegations that have been made, but that’s not what this legislation is about,” Hoyer told Stars and Stripes. “This legislation is about a knee-jerk reaction to a very bad situation painting with a very broad brush.”
Benishek is stunned at Hoyer’s approach.
“This lack of scrutiny on the management team is disgusting. This is an emergency. People are dying. This is a matter of life and death. This is not some Department of Agriculture rule that’s not being fixed. People are dying every day,” said Benishek, noting at least 40 deaths in Phoenix have been linked to a bureaucratic logjam.
“Isn’t anybody outraged? I’m outraged. I guess Mr. Hoyer’s not outraged. I’m more concerned about the veteran than the senior members of the staff,” he said.
Benishek says the House will be pursuing additional legislation to compel reform at the VA. He is also encouraged that the media are paying a great deal of attention to the crisis.
The VA Accountability is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate. Florida Republican Marco Rubio tried to get approved on a unanimous consent request. However, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (D-Vermont) objected, saying he needed more time to study the two-page bill and that he wants to hold hearings on the issue next month.