WASHINGTON — Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan came to Washington on Monday to urge sweeping reforms of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs and to push priorities for the massive agency’s next chief executive.
They said President Barack Obama and Congress must do more than name and confirm a replacement for Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who resigned last week following reports of treatment delays and other problems at VA hospitals across the country.
“What we need is a Marshall Plan for veterans,” Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told reporters at an outdoor briefing near the U.S. Capitol. “This is a defining moment in American history.”
Rieckhoff, who founded the 177,000-member group after having served in Iraq, laid out an ambitious eight-point proposal, starting with the nomination of a new VA leader who served in one of the two post-9/11 wars.
Among other recommendations, the group wants a criminal investigation of VA employees who allegedly falsified data on how long veterans waited to see doctors, plus a nationwide review of all VA hospitals and clinics to see how widespread the problems are.
“An unknown number of bad actors have ruined the reputation of the VA,” Rieckhoff said. “Those who have violated America’s sacred trust with our veterans must be rooted out nationwide and held accountable.”
The scandal that led to Shinseki’s resignation started at the VA hospital in Phoenix. A probe by the agency’s inspector general found that vets waited an average of 115 days for their first medical appointment, 91 days longer than the hospital reported in its logs.
The inspector general investigation has spread to 42 VA health care facilities across the United States suspected of manipulating patient wait-time data in order to conceal treatment delays. The fraudulent bookkeeping helps VA hospital administrators get cash bonuses and pay increases, the inspector general report found.
Poor training and outdated computer software also contribute to scheduling problems, Rieckhoff said.
Aaron Mankin, a former Marine Corps corporal who was severely wounded by a bomb blast in Iraq that killed six Marines, said the gratitude Americans express to him must be supplemented by improvements in health care for all former service members.
“Everywhere I go, people want to tell me, ‘Thank you for your service.’” Mankin said. “They want to hug me, have their picture taken with me. I think the time for saying ‘thanks’ has passed.”
Rieckhoff said the new VA chief must be given more power to swiftly remove hospital managers who falsify data. He urged the Democratic-majority Senate to pass the Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which the Republican-ruled House of Representatives approved May 21 by a wide bipartisan margin.
The measure, crafted by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would authorize the VA secretary to sidestep civil service rules and merit reviews in order to fire hospital administrators and other senior executives based on performance.
“Without the ability to fire poor-performing managers, the next VA secretary will struggle to restore a culture of accountability,” Rieckhoff said.
Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Monday that at least 23 veterans have died because of recent delays in obtaining VA medical care.
“The only right executives who contributed to the VA scandal have is the right to be shown the door,” Miller wrote in a column published by Time.com.
Rieckhoff also urged congressional passage of the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, introduced in March by Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat who received a Bronze Star for his Iraq service.
With an estimated 22 veterans taking their lives each day, Walsh’s bill would provide more suicide-prevention funds and other resources for the 1 million veterans believed to be at risk. The number of veterans seeking medical care has ballooned following the 2009 end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq and the return of most American service members from Afghanistan.
Among its demands, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group wants improved integration of Pentagon medical records for active-duty troops and VA records for vets.
“We’ve had America’s backs,” Rieckhoff said. “Now it’s time for you to have ours.”