Donald Trump made cleaning up the Department of Veterans Affairs one of his top campaign promises, and as the president-elect considers his options to lead that effort, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and veterans activist says personnel will be critical since the job of fixing the VA will be long and difficult.
Jessie Jane Duff served 20 years in the Marines. She is now a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. Duff told WND and Radio America Trump must pick someone who can run a massive operation like the VA but that person must also be tough enough to force change upon those addicted to the status quo.
“This is not for somebody who just is well-versed on the VA. It’s great to be versed on the VA, but if you don’t have management experience dealing with unions, dealing with backlogs, dealing with bureaucracy and trying to be a positive change agent, you’re not going to be the person for the job,” Duff said.
Duff says prior military service might be nice but is really not all that vital to doing what needs to be done.
“I’m not even that concerned if someone is a veteran or not. It’s not a military organization. It services veterans. I need somebody who is service-oriented and understands what it is to deliver on a product or service to a customer, particularly one that is so important such as our American veterans,” she said.
Because of the sprawling nature of the VA, she said that tough, competent person must have tough, competent people beneath him or her.
“The changes are going to be difficult,” Duff said. “It’s going to be very difficult. Whoever does get in there is going to have to align themselves with really strong undersecretaries. The Veterans Administration is broken up into many, many small departments, and they’re scattered throughout the nation. So you can easily find little pocket groups that are going to do their own thing.”
According to Duff, the new secretary must make it crystal clear from Day 1 that business as usual is over.
“Employees have to understand, this is the new sheriff in town,” Duff said. “We’re going to get this right, and whatever it takes is what we’re going to do. You’re going to meet massive resistance, and the unions are probably going to fight them left and right. They have to get the right center of attention, and that is back on the veteran and not on the VA employee.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Jessie Jane Duff:
While Duff and many other veterans activists are highly critical of the Obama administration’s approach to the issue, she admits that current VA Secretary Robert McDonald faced roadblocks over the personnel changes he did try to make, precisely because of organized labor.
“He had tried to fire multiple employees of the VA and was just never successful with it,” Duff said. “Often it was because they would go through this appeal process, and the union that protects these employees would find that little loophole that says, ‘No, that doesn’t fall under the guidances of our agreements.”
The union in question is the American Federation of Government Employees, or AFGE.
“They were able to get many, many of these employees back pay or reassigned to placed back into the jobs that they had been severed from,” Duff said.
She said those kinds of bureaucratic hurdles prevent real change from happening.
“The process, the system, everything about it is so severed, so broken,” Duff explained. “You have to have somebody willing to go in there and recognize that and not try to pretend that you’re going to put a bandage on a sucking chest wound.”
So how does that entrenched bureaucracy ever budge? Duff said it’s more about determination and less about any additional legislation.
“You have to find out how how can we fire people without going through all this bureaucracy. It’s going to require shaking up and breaking up that union,” she said. “They’re going to have to figure out a way to do it because trying to legislate your way out of this has proven time and time and time again to be ineffective.”
As an example, she said the 2015 legislation that allowed “veterans choice” for vets that don’t live near a VA facility turned out to be a mess. Instead of making life easier for veterans to get private-sector care that’s far more convenient, VA bureaucracy turned the opportunity into a nightmare.
“Well, guess what happens? The bureaucracy to fill out the paperwork becomes so deep that many veterans got discouraged doing it,” Duff said. “Some veterans have reported finding out the bills were never paid by the VA and they turned around and got them on their credit report. And the VA itself had tried to allocate the billions of dollars they were given for it into other areas of the VA.”
The care itself is still turning up horror stories as well, most recently the allegations that a VA dentist failed to sterilize his equipment and now some 600 patients need to be screened for HIV and various strains of hepatitis. The dentist is still on the VA payroll, but has been moved to an administrative position.
Duff said the approach of the new VA boss needs to be very simple.
“We have to get somebody who’s a clear-headed thinker who realizes you’re obviously not going to be able to service all veterans,” she said. “You have to allow veterans who are not near a VA medical system, or not getting adequate care, to go to (private-sector) facilities near them. That’s rule number one.”
But as critical as Duff is of the current system, she doesn’t want to scrap it. She wants to replicate what works in successful VA hospitals in the facilities that are failing.
“Rule number two: You don’t have to destroy the entire system,” she said. “There are many model hospitals that are out there. Use them as the diagram to re-establish those hospitals that are failing.”
Duff said VA facilities should face consequences for failing to meet the standard of care America’s veterans deserve.
“Treat it like a school system,” she said. “Set up a standard of excellence that must be managed and maintained. Those who do not manage or maintain it are threatened to be closed or reformed or [have their entire staffs fired].”
She is not officially recommending any particular candidate in mind to lead the VA through such a change, although one name quickly came to mind for her.
“I’m probably not the right person to ask who would be best for it, but (former Texas Gov.) Rick Perry does happen to be a veteran,” Duff said. “He has, obviously, managed an enormous budget. He has great success in Texas with the economy. He’s also very very concerned with veterans. He’s been very outspoken and has gone to the medical centers in Texas.”
If Trump picks someone capable of doing all this, how soon could the nation see significant results?
“With the right people and the right direction and the right demands of them, and they’re given checks and balances, and they’re given a benchmark to reach every quarter and every year, I think we’re going to see significant improvement in the first year,” Duff said. “We should see mass improvement in two.”
She firmly believes Trump’s fate in 2020 could very well depend upon how well he keeps this promise.
“Should he be re-elected, it means he did a great job because veterans are behind this man. The reason he’s in office is because a huge number of veterans got out there and voted for him,” Duff said. “He cannot drop the ball on this one. It will make or break his re-election.”