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Urgent Veterans Affairs reform is needed now

The findings from a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) describe an agency in crisis.

The investigation uncovered that the VA whitewashed misconduct allegations without interviewing witnesses; flatly ignored whistleblower concerns; failed to remove or suspend employees who were found guilty of gross misconduct; and allowed several individuals to investigate their own accusations.

Most troubling, VA whistleblowers were 10 times more likely to receive disciplinary action than other employees, and two-thirds of them left the VA within a year, suggesting pervasive retaliation against employees who reported wrongdoing or abuse.

These findings unfortunately confirmed the reasons why I called for this investigation and mirrored the dozens of complaints my office received from Albuquerque VA staff who described a culture of intimidation and bullying.

Many even contacted my office anonymously or used aliases to conceal their identity due to fear of reprisal.

Extremely alarming for me was when a staffer at the Albuquerque VA Hospital told me that, “When staff complain about supervisors, management either found a reason to fire them or bullied them until they quit.”

Instead of acknowledging that our most important tool in reforming the VA is the veterans, loved ones, and staff who bravely report misconduct and abuse, VA officials were burying complaints and pushing out concerned employees.

VA Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman, R-Colo., had heard the same types of anecdotes that we had been hearing.

In March 2015, we worked to launch a national investigation into VA whistleblower and accountability issues because when problems are hidden, veterans suffer, and people die.

The investigation’s findings were disturbing and portrayed a toxic culture that failed to hold employees responsible for misconduct and punished those with the courage to speak up.

That type of turmoil is completely unacceptable for an agency that manages the federal government’s most solemn responsibility: caring for the men and women who were injured or traumatized defending our nation.

It is clear that whistleblower retaliation and a pervasive lack of accountability are major roadblocks to reducing patient wait times, increasing access to PTSD services, improving caregiving and providing quality health care.

Reforming our VA is not a partisan issue, and members of Congress must continue to work collaboratively to improve veteran services and be responsive to the people we represent. We must engage more members in this effort because much more work remains to be done.

That is why I urge my Congressional colleagues to establish a blue ribbon commission, similar to what Congress set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in order to overhaul how the VA protects whistleblowers and addresses mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse.

Further, the VA is blatantly ignoring its procedures on due process rights, whistleblower rights and employee accountability, and I believe the Department of Justice (DOJ) has the independence and expertise to immediately change that culture.

The Trump administration must assign a DOJ federal monitor to oversee misconduct complaints – for the benefit of whistleblowers and accused.

These common-sense steps are needed to ensure the federal government keeps its promise to the brave men and women who risk their lives for our country.

I am especially grateful for every person who has come forward and brought to light issues at the VA.

Without their courage, we would never know about the problems that need to be fixed; Congress would never have enacted the VA Choice Program; the GAO would never have launched this investigation, and I would not have the honor to advocate for veterans and families experiencing issues at the Albuquerque VA Hospital.

I am committed to continuing to do everything possible to reform the VA and work to ensure every veteran receives the timely, quality care they have earned.