Congress Is Getting Tougher on the VA

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Lawmakers Criticize Agency on Response to What They Say Are Errors at Facilities.

Congress is poised to tighten its leash on the Department of Veterans Affairs over its response to what lawmakers say are management and medical errors, just as VA facilities are flooded with a new generation of injured troops.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, top members of the congressional committees that oversee the VA are increasingly frustrated with the agency in the wake of incidents ranging from a patient’s death after an altercation with a nursing assistant in Louisiana to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers say these episodes reflect a lack of accountability at the 1,700 VA hospitals, clinics and other facilities.

Congress now appears likely to impose legislative penalties on the VA. The House last week unanimously passed a bill that included a five-year ban on bonuses for senior VA executives. The Senate is considering less severe restrictions on performance pay.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), says he plans to introduce a measure this week that would make it easier to fire or demote hospital directors and other executives whose performance falls short.

“VA needs to more directly and explicitly measure each leader’s contribution,” said Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the top Democrat on the House VA committee. “If they do not, they will never be able to truly hold themselves accountable to veterans, or the American taxpayer.”

The VA cares for 8.75 million patients, from nonagenarian World War II veterans to teenagers with brain injuries from Afghanistan. Vietnam-era vets are now heavy VA users.

In some ways, the agency is politically inviolate. Since the 2000 fiscal year, its budget has tripled to $148 billion in the current fiscal year, with no serious talk of cuts despite general concern about government deficits. But that windfall and the influx of wounded vets have also drawn increased congressional scrutiny of the agency’s performance.

Veterans’ groups are monitoring the scrap between the agency and the Hill. Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, praised Congress for taking its oversight responsibility seriously. But he worries that measures such as banning bonuses might drive talent from the VA’s ranks and into the often more-lucrative private sector. “The one thing we can’t do is penalize everybody for the faults of a few,” said Mr. Davis.

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