|Maureen Callahan and her father,Vietnam War veteran Bill|
“I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished,” then-President Barack Obama said. “I want every veteran to know we are going to fix what is wrong.”
Yes, the federal government was going to internally fix what was wrong with a massive, federally funded institution.
Last Thursday, more than three years and two new secretaries later, the New York Times reported that current head David Shulkin is fighting to keep out the director of the Washington Medical Center, Brian Hawkins, who was fired last month for running a hospital at “the highest levels of chaos.”
Hawkins has appealed to the government’s Merit Systems Protections Board, claiming wrongful termination. The board gave him a stay, even though President Trump signed a law in June eliminating appeals by senior department executives to that body. But because disciplinary action was initiated against Hawkins in April, his lawyer claims wrongful termination — such action predates the new law.
So Shulkin now says he’ll use new evidence to keep Hawkins out, even though Hawkins can then appeal to a new internal review board, about which we know little.
What is clear is that multiple federally appointed boards and committees are working at cross-purposes to ostensibly fix the VA.
Sound absurd? Like the height of dysfunction and bureaucratic infighting, siphoning time, money and attention away from the very people Veterans Affairs and the federal government are meant to protect?
Welcome to the VA.
If you’ve never dealt with the VA, it’s impossible to understand how infuriating, dispiriting and broken it is. My initiation dates back to November 2013, when my father, a Vietnam vet, was scheduled for surgery to remove a supposedly localized mass in one lung.
We were told to arrive at the hospital at 11 a.m., before he’d be wheeled into the OR — which we did, only to find an empty hospital room. Where was he?
Oh, we were told, he was wheeled in at 7 a.m.
Why? No one had an answer.
Four hours later, a very kind resident emerged to tell us they had been wrong: My father actually had Stage IV lung cancer. There was nothing they could do and they were closing him up now. The doctor who’d made this catastrophic misdiagnosis, it turned out, was also the lead surgeon, and I asked to speak with him.
The resident told me that wasn’t possible. Why? He couldn’t say.
“No, really,” I said. “Why can’t I speak to my father’s surgeon?”
“You just can’t,” came the reply.
It was a harbinger of stonewalling to come. The VA loves to claim all kinds of outreach, services and benefits, but you’d better know your way around. At the Brooklyn VA, the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) maintains offices, but if you seek help from them, you can’t seek help directly from the VA — and DAV reps often aggressively pursue confused veterans.
Who benefits and by how much is unclear, but DAV employees aren’t always transparent with these veterans, some of whom my father and I met one winter weekday.
These men were older, sick and frail. One had risen early, made a very long drive, and now sat with the others outside these offices. They were waiting for their representative to show for their scheduled appointments.
I asked how long they’d been waiting. Hours, they told me. Their rep might not show up at all. It happened all the time. They had no choice but to wait.
Couldn’t they complain?
They laughed. To whom?
My dad and I walked down the hall looking for help. There, in a big office overlooking the river, sat a well-fed, well-tended anonymous chief of something. His role was deliberately ambiguous, but he had a corner office. Surely he could do something.
We walked in and I asked where the DAV rep was. Did he know there was a line of older vets waiting for help? (Click to Continue)
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My father and the dysfunctional, broken VA