19 December 2015

Department of Veterans Affairs December 2015: One veteran's appraisal

This old vet
• It is a better department than last year. While problems still abound, there are fewer than last year and we understand more about dealing with remaining issues.

• The C-123 issue has been basically resolved, with only retroactive compensation a lingering concern. This wraps up a 54-month effort, largely thanks to the Secretary's own fist pushing through his Interim Final Rule. As a small group, we've received more attention than we're due, both from the Secretary and his colleagues.

• The principal news on benefits came this week with the VA's announcement that it intends providing presumptive service connection to Camp Lejeune Marines. This is the biggest event since Secretary Shinseki recognized IHD as a presumptive Agent Orange illness, and again is due to Secretary McDonald's leadership.

• Staff changes have been significant and not always for the better. Besides the new Secretary, new faces are in place for Under Secretary for Benefits and Under Secretary for Health Administration. Staffers at more junior levels have caused alarm due to FOIA releases showing their personal disregard for the Veterans Claims Assistance Act, the VA21-1 regulation and Due Process rights.

• The inappropriate use of outside consultants and subject matter experts is certainly receiving more critical attention within the Department.

Secretary Bob McDonald
• I find the Secretary, much like his earliest predecessor General Bradley, to be basically apolitical, completely dedicated to serving veterans, and more hardworking than I ever imagined a cabinet officer could be. If VA has a problem he wants it out. If VA has a success he wants it magnified. If a veteran has a concern he wants it addressed. If a veteran wants a harder working Secretary of Veterans Affairs, good luck – there's none to be found! Give him credit – he took a job leading this government's most toxic agency with no chance for wide acclaim, only criticism, but a job he could grab onto to make veterans' lives better.

• Homelessness among veterans is greatly reduced, and the public is becoming aware that not every panhandler on a corner with a cardboard sign "help a veteran" is one...as they usually aren't.

• Claims inventory is down but appeals are up beyond reason.

• The VA Center for Ethics in Healthcare remains challenged with too many failures, as does the VA's own Inspector General.

• The VA Office of General Counsel serves the Secretary and his department as their client, of course, but has completely forgotten that the best way to do so is to have veterans' needs as their paramount goal.

• VA's Denver hospital became a national disgrace and brought the Department into disrepute.

Good job, VA!
• VA continues to disregard legitimate Freedom of Information Act requests, including those for patient records for veterans' claims; too much money is wasted opposing FOIAs, both in VA staff, VA attorneys, Department of Justice attorneys and fees paid veterans' advocates for unjustly withholding public information.

• Clinic and hospital appointment wait times are improved.

• The Veterans Choice program is far from perfect but is helping speed up urgent care.

Conclusion:There isn't much more we could have hoped for from any Secretary of Veterans Affairs or any president's administration than Secretary McDonald has delivered for America's veterans. Whoever our next president may be, "Bob" is needed right where he is.

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