Military News

Kilmer’s VA reform bill aims for changes in troubled agency’s top ranks

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer wants to reform the top ranks at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs by empowering the agency’s lower-level employees to recommend improvements without kicking off a full-blown whistleblower investigation.

He gathered a group of veterans in Tacoma on Friday to unveil a bill he plans to submit next week that takes aim at the management of the sprawling agency that has come under fire amid revelations that schedulers at many of its hospitals used gimmicks to hide long patient wait times. The Gig Harbor Democrat is targeting the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees the agency’s 151 medical centers.

Kilmer’s Veterans Health Administration Management Improvement Act would:

• Require the Government Accountability Office to study management practices at the VA’s health administration and produce reports for Congress.

• Create a management improvement pilot program based on the GAO reports.

• Establish a VA ombudsman program to give VA employees a channel to recommend changes to the organization that do not rise to the level of an Inspector General report on suspected waste, fraud and abuse.

• Write a veterans’ bill of rights for VA patients.

“The effort to improve the management of the Veterans Health Administration is going to be long,” Kilmer said. “I have very little patience because I think this about making sure that those who have served get the care and services that they have earned.”

In May, allegations that schedulers at the VA hospital in Phoenix kept “secret waiting lists” to cover up delays in care led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The agency has been dogged by a backlog in claims processed by its Veterans Benefits Administration and a crunch of incoming patients brought in by the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as expanded benefits for older veterans.

Shinseki’s successor, Bob McDonald, said at a congressional hearing this week that the VA might need “tens of thousands” more medical staffers to catch up on the demand for its services.

More than 312,000 people work for the VA. The Obama administration requested $163.9 billion for the agency’s 2015 budget.

“More action is needed,” Kilmer said. “One of the things I think we’ve learned is that a lack of resources is not the sole problem.”

He described the bill at a meeting with representatives from the union that represents VA employees in the Puget Sound and the AmVets veterans services organization. Both groups said they endorsed Kilmer’s bill.

They particularly liked the call for a VA ombudsman that they said would give well-meaning employees a way to improve their agency without drawing critical attention to themselves as whistleblowers.

“This is a long time coming,” said Chris Winters of Tacoma, an Army Gulf War veteran who has been working with Kilmer on VA reform ideas.

Next week, the VA Puget Sound is holding two town hall forums for veterans to speak with the region’s top leadership. The first is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. in building 9 of the VA’s American Lake campus in Tacoma. A second forum is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Southcenter Doubletree in Tukwila.