Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald admitted at a hearing Wednesday that the department is suffering from a leadership crisis.
During the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp directly asked McDonald, “There is a culture of silence. Do you disagree with that?”
“Last September there were people unwilling to speak up,” McDonald responded. “That’s why I’ve been to over 200 facilities.”
“Do you disagree with the assessment that there is a culture of silence?” Huelskamp repeated, and upon disagreement from McDonald, he added, “You’re in the midst of a leadership crisis.”
“I am in the midst of a leadership crisis,” McDonald admitted. “That’s why I’ve brought on new leadership.”
That admission was delivered in a tense exchange between Huelskamp and McDonald during a hearing on a massive, 4,000-page independent assessment of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The assessment showed that Kaiser Permanente, another health care provider, is incomparably more efficient than the VHA. Kaiser has 114,000 fewer employees, yet provides care for 3.3 million more patients. In terms of the number of appointments per day, VHA providers only see 10-12. Other providers can see nearly 24.
The report castigated the department and called for a “system-wide reworking of VHA.” It stems from issues such as patients reporting significantly less favorable experiences at VA facilities, compared to non-VA facilities. Then there’s the problem of a culture of silence.
“Nobody feels safe, including us,” a VA medical center leader said in the report. “How am I supposed to role model psychological safety when I don’t feel safe myself?”
According to McDonald, there are five ways out of the crisis. The first is to get the right leaders in place. The second is that the department has to be clear on what culture it wants, and it has to discipline retaliation against whistleblowers.
Third, McDonald said the department has been working with special counsel to ensure that 45 whistleblowers receive restitution.
Fourth, the Office of Special Counsel has certified the VA for doing the training necessary to improve on working with whistleblowers.
And finally, McDonald underscored the need for town hall meetings.
“We have to get the light shined on these things,” McDonald said. “I meet privately with the whistleblowers and the union leaders when I go to every site.”
But many were dissatisfied with the testimony from McDonald and Dr. David Shulkin, undersecretary of health for the VA.
“Today’s House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing makes one thing clear: the VA is not fundamentally serious about fixing the systematic problems plaguing the department,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. “Instead of committing to the reform proposals outlined by the VA’s own independent assessment of the Veterans Health Administration, the VA continues to defend its processes and procedures, and double down on a system that has failed millions of veterans nationwide.”
Rep. Mike Coffman had his own ideas for restructuring, though he admitted Congress is somewhat divided on the need for personnel reform. As Coffman put it, there’s a “need to fire those who are incompetent, those who are not performing, those who have committed fraud. It is simply too difficult.”
McDonald struck back against proposals to privatize the VA as another option for restructuring, after Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown prompted him to discuss arguments in opposition to the idea.
“It would be a big mistake to even think about closing it,” McDonald said, bringing up points about physician training and medical research, as well as the fact that VA facilities are designed to provide comprehensive care, rather than just physical.
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