One of the most valued promises Presidential Candidate Trump made on the campaign trail was that the widely-acknowledged failure of the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) would be corrected by extensive reform. After Inauguration, President Trump reinforced those promises on the white house website. His initial actions toward this promise have simultaneously encouraged and disconcerted the advocates for reform.
Military families confirmed support for the 10-point plan for reform presented during the campaign. In particular, military personnel and their advocates are depending on the new administration to make three significant improvements:
MAKE HEALTH CARE READILY AVAILABLE
Among the primary concerns of veteran patients are the current barriers to prompt care and how to eliminate them. All parties want to eradicate the volumes of red tape and the lengthy wait backlogs delaying patient care of injuries, illnesses, disabilities and other physical ailments. In addition, adding additional mental health practitioners as providers is anticipated to make diagnosis and therapy for psychological conditions available when needed.
MODERNIZE TO MEET 21ST CENTURY NEEDS
The foundational step to modernization is to provide full communication. Military advocates seek a modern platform that enables veterans to voice their complaints and ensures the government can quickly respond. They anxiously await the 24-hour/day hotline anticipated in early 2017 as well as the related commission to investigate complaints of fraud, cover-ups and other malfeasance.
ENFORCE CONSEQUENCES FOR CORRUPT EMPLOYEES
Perhaps most importantly, they want to see changes on the front lines at home. Veterans require accountability among the decision-makers within the individual facilities, including those subject to union contracts.
GOOD FAITH ILLUSTRATED SHORTLY AFTER INAUGURATION
The world watches with the military to see how the Trump administration will incorporate reformation of the VA into the busy first 100 days. Within the first couple of weeks, two actions already encourage belief that change is coming.
FIRST CORRUPT EMPLOYEES REMOVED
During the weeks of the Trump administration, Puerto Rico received the distinction of hosting the removal of the first two corrupt employees. The VA hospital, a facility in disrepute after numerous instances of corruption, was previously under formal investigation for a range of charges from theft to falsification of internal documents. However, though numerous individuals had been identified, no action had been taken.
On Jan. 20, Inauguration Day itself, the hospital CEO was removed from that role. His offenses were not only being arrested on a charge of drunken driving and possession of medication for which he did not have a prescription, but his attempts to cover-up. Back in 2016 he initiated a retaliatory firing of the employee who revealed his arrest, and then exponentially magnified the error by insisting another employee falsify the reason for the firing. When she failed to comply, he attempted to fire her, and then bribe her with $305,000 of taxpayer money.
Days later, Jan. 24, a second employee was removed. Like the CEO, she committed a crime outside of the hospital that still impacted its operation. Convicted of armed robbery, she kept her job while she served time in jail, and then was allowed to return to work in the security office.
DAVID SHULKIN NOMINATED AS SECRETARY OF VETERAN AFFAIRS
President Trump's nomination of David Shulkin was received with both positive and critical feedback. Criticism arises mostly from the fact that he has been undersecretary since 2015 and is the sole member of the Obama administration to be nominated. They express concern that he was part of the executive decision-makers in place while corruption appeared to go unaddressed. In addition, a few may be wary that he would be the first non-veteran secretary.
However, others take comfort in the knowledge that he was brought into the department as part of the initial process of reform under the prior administration. He is the embodiment of the point he emphasized during his confirmation hearing Feb. 1, although there are many individuals whose actions need to be addressed, the majority of employees do the right thing.
The undersecretary's history and confirmation hearing provide three other reasons to believe he will bring effective change.
Beth Israel Medical Center in New York – From 2005 to 2009, he served as President and CEO of the center. During his tenure as leader, patient care notably improved at that facility. He has demonstrated ability to reform.
2017 Federal Government Hiring Freeze – When the hiring freeze was announced in January, concerns abounded that the freeze would interfere with the VA reformation. Shulkin reassured the Senate during his hearing that he had already addressed the freeze with the Trump administration and they committed to exemptions for 37,000 positions. His foresight and proactive intercession reveals his personal dedication to improving the department and ensuring it is able to serve our veterans – the will to reform.
Privatization – Public opinion had also been divided by the Trump campaign proposition that one of his methods to reform would be to privatize the VA. Shulkin mediated the effect by promising at his hearing that privatization would not be part of his policy. Instead, he has historically supported reviewing and expanding the existing Veterans Choice Program that already allows patients to obtain care at other facilities. He has demonstrated the ability to find a compromise that maintains the integrity of the both the principals and principles involved.
The Trump administration appears to have been sincere in its promise to respond to the public outcry for VA reform. The Whitehouse has reaffirmed its pledge to continue the campaign promises and has evidenced its intent with action by firing two notably corrupt executives.
While the nomination of an existing member of the bureaucracy to the Cabinet raised questions for some, only time will tell if the undersecretary was an exception to the preexisting bureaucratic order who brings true reform, or if he was a full-fledged participant who simply brings new faces to old practices.