When Congressionals at a “Confirmation” hearing spend more time talking than the nominee, it’s a pretty good bet the nominee is going to sail through.
“Senator” is actually the Latin word for “Soundbite”.
True to form, a Panel of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs recently backed the nomination of former Proctor & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald, 14-0.
So, it looks like the future leader of the VA is well on his way to his new job. I watched a good bit of the confirmation hearings, and will keep my thoughts to myself for now.
There are enough folks playing “Pre-Game Quarterback” for the time being.
However, when Robert McDonald is confirmed by the full Senate, I will send this letter to him directly.
Dear Mr. McDonald:
Congratulations on your nomination – it seems that now your confirmation by the Senate is a sure thing.
It has been said that the greatest Vice is “Ad-Vice”, and so I won’t try to tell you how to learn your role or do your job.
I do, however, have 6 requests for you to consider as you get settled in to a role of – hopefully – dramatically changing the culture of an organization hell bent on NOT taking care of America’s Veterans.
These 6 requests are all very simple – only one requires a major process change – you could in theory accomplish the other 5 starting on Day 1 of your new calling, and be done well before a mid-morning coffee break.
So here they are:
#1: Publish the work phone number of every VA Employee.
It’s easy to not have a sense of urgency in your work if you don’t talk – every day – to a Veteran who is dying waiting for his claim to be granted.
That’s what keeps me so focused – I hear, every day, the horror stories of loss in the lives of our reintegrating soldiers and Veterans.
The Veteran that lost his home in a foreclosure waiting on the VBA to act. The Veteran who had to declare bankruptcy because the VA took 8+ years to decide his benefits claim. The one who killed himself in VA care. The one who died because he couldn’t get a VA appointment. The Veteran whose daughter lost Dependent Educational benefits because the VA sat on his claim for a decade. The list goes on.
If VA employees had to hear – every single day, as my law firm does – the struggles that our Veterans face in their daily lives due to the injuries incurred in military service, the “good ones” at the VA would rise to the top, and the bad ones would move on to less stressful and emotionally taxing work.
Stop forcing the “Good VA Employees” to hide behind the bureaucracy that kept your predecessors in the dark, that lied to him, that played games with Veterans to make their numbers look good.
There are good and decent people in the VA. I’ve met them. The Director of the Dallas VAMC, for one. That DRO out in Los Angeles is another good example. This young lady in VA Hospice.
Give them a chance to help more Veterans, more quickly, by giving them access to Veterans directly. Publish the work phone number for every single VA employee and let Veterans have direct contact with them.
#2: Get rid of this nonsensical VA appeal process.
The biggest part of the backlog of VA appeals comes from an insane appeal process that a Veteran has to go through if he/she disagrees with a VA Ratings Decision. Here’s how it works:
1) Veteran files appeal (called a Notice of Disagreement)
2) VA issues a Statement of the Case (SOC)
3) Veteran files a substantive appeal (VA Form 9)
4) VA issues Supplemental Statement of the Case (SSOC)
5) VA Certifies the Appeal to the BVA
6) BVA Dockets the case
7) Hearing is scheduled.
The process is INSANE – and can often take 2 -4 years (or more) to get a single appeal before the BVA. Read about the “wait times” that the BVA publishes in its annual reports.
Get rid of the NOD-SOC-VA9-SSOC-Certification process. The only people that want it are a couple VSOs that need a convoluted appeal process to continue “proving” to their dwindling membership that they are relevant.
Here’s the new process to replace it with:
1) Veteran files an appeal
2) BVA Judge issues a Scheduling Order in 20 days
3) Veteran has right to discover the evidence the VA has in the case – lasting 20 days
4) Veteran and VA files pre-hearing submissions
5) BVA Judge schedules hearing and issues decision in 4 months.
If anyone tells you it can’t be done, I want you to call me and I will show you how it CAN – and which government agency is already doing it.
#3: Meet with the Board of Directors of the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA).
The National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA) is the only organization that I am aware of that trains the professional Veterans Advocate – accredited agents and attorneys – how to competently and ethically represent Veterans in the disability claims process.
NOVA’s membership is small – we are true believers. Many of us are Veterans, or family of Veterans, and want one thing only: due process and justice in the VA Disability Claims and Appeal process.
NOVA members take our duty of loyalty to our Veteran clients seriously, and we often put ourselves dangerously close to the proverbial “poor-house” to ensure that our brothers and sisters in arms get the due process and justice that they are entitled to.
A little secret that your predecessor and his chain of command never got – attorneys don’t really want to even sue the VA most times – its just that nobody has given us any other way to help effectuate the change that EVERYONE wants.
And NOVA has some ideas of ways to fix this broken benefits process and rebuild trust with Veterans – at least as far as the VBA is concerned.
Nobody likes long meetings with attorneys. I get it. So, here’s how we will keep our meeting from being too long.
You pick a random Veteran to sit in your office and call the 1-800-827-1000 number to get help from the VA … we’ll go meet in your conference room.
When the Veteran talks to a VA employee and gets an answer to his/her question, we’ll end the meeting and walk out.
#4: Change the Vision of the VA.
Torpedo the current Vision or Mission of the VA – whatever it is.
Frankly, I have no idea what it is – even though I have daily interactions with many VA employees, I couldn’t tell the difference between the VA Mission and the San Antonio Missions.
Regardless, don’t fall into the trap of believing that the mission of the VA is the delivery of quality health care to those that served – it is NOT. Nor is it the timely delivery of disability benefits decisions to those disabled by military service.
The mission of the VA is simple: To Reintegrate All Veterans to Civilian Life.
It’s that simple. That is a Mission that a Leader could rally his “troops” (or employees, if you will) around.
Moreover, if the focus of each and every VA employee was the Mission of reintegrating one of our own citizens back to the life that they left when they went off to war – or restoring them to the life they “would have had” but for their willingness to serve our nation in battle – the VA bureaucracy would necessarily have to crumble.
One cannot help another person rebuild their life AND wrap them in Red Tape at the same time.
#5: Buy lunch – every single day – with a Homeless Veteran in McPherson Square.
I wish I was a photographer.
If I had an eye for capturing images on film, here is one that I would have captured:
This past spring, I had the occasion to sit in on some meetings at VBA Headquarters with the heads of various VSOs and some of the VBA leadership.
I arrived early to 810 Vermont Ave and so I sat in McPherson Square and had a cup of coffee. I was surrounded – literally surrounded – by homeless Veterans sleeping in pup tents, or with their head on an old OD Green Duffel Bag.
Directly across the street was the VA Headquarters building.
Limousines of the VA leadership littered the “special parking lanes” along Vermont Avenue. Armed guards in civilian suits – stereotypical and obviously armed Government “G-Men” in black suits toting barely concealed sub-machine guns patrolled the perimeter of the building.
The 2 worlds – the guarded and entrenched world of the VA “leadership” and the world where the Veteran struggles to survive each day – are separated by a barrier.
A barrier that VA leadership has spend decades building up.
Instead of providing a safe place for Veterans to seek help, the VA has pretended that it is “under siege” by Veterans needing help.
22 Veterans a day commit suicide. Homeless Veterans are the new “War Memorials” in our cities and towns. These are the smallest of problems our communities face.
Every single day, spend $10 and bring lunch to one of the homeless Vets in McPherson Square. Talk to him or her.
Have a daily reminder of the problems that plague our fellow Americans – our brothers and sisters that served so diligently in peace and in war – that have not been able to successfully reintegrate into their civilian lives.
The VA may not have caused ALL of their problems – but a VA with a new mission and bold LEADER-ship can change the life trajectory of every single Veteran in the nation.
#6: Hire more BVA Judges.
The Federal Government has the ability to hire Term employees. Many agencies balance their seasonal workload by hiring Term Employees.
Triple the number of BVA Judges using Term Hirees/Appointees. Clear out the Appeals Backlog. Give the BVA judges that care about Veterans a chance to do right in their claims by getting the clog in the system cleared out.
If you’re going to ask Congress for money to fix the VA, this would be a great place to start. It has a very low-cost with a very big payoff.
The bureaucrats will say not to do it – they are concerned that someone may outshine them, or that someone may encroach on their “turf”.
They won’t say it that way, of course – they’ll mask their true motives in that Bureaucrat-ese Double Speak that I am sure that you must have heard at P&G.
I wish you success in your new role. Truly I do.
But we Veterans have been promised bold change and dynamic leadership far too many times to really believe that it will happen.
General Shinseki was the last straw for many of us: we watched one of our own (a combat disabled and decorated soldier who, as a General, was not afraid to speak truth to power) get sucked into the lies and deceit and then brainwashed by the VA Bureaucracy.
My fear is that within a year you will have realized that it will take more than you have to turn this system around, and the VA will be given back to the Bureaucrats.
Please, prove us wrong.
If there is anything I can do to help you implement REAL and DYNAMIC change at the VA, give me a call.
I have the ear of (at least) 25,000 Veterans – very active and vocal Veterans, too – every month through the Veterans Law Blog, emails, Facebook and other social media platforms.
Like Scipio Africanus’ so-called “Ghosts of Cannae”, we stand ready to serve the VA leader that will deliver on promises of change and truly build an agency that can help restore our brothers and sisters in arms to the place in American society that they gave up to fight the politicians wars.
Will that be you?
Very good letter to the new VA Secretary. He has already had a few bumps in the road but seems to otherwise be doing a good job. I was really impressed with the comments regarding using term employess for judges at the BVA. This organization has really let the veterans down and everyttime I set the backlog, it makes me sick! Bob McDonald has the ability to lead to changing this. Question is, will he step up to the plate?
Again, good letter to Bob McDonald and I applaud your effort!
i so agree with you and wish bob will implement at least half your ideas.
ps: fighting with VARO new orleans on service connection and 1151 tort claims one from 1993 other now 3 years
Very well written letter. Reasonable,logical, and and possible to implement. As always, getting this past an entrenched establishment will be a major battle.
The only way that this will be possible is if the new Secretary has the power to dismiss any employee for cause, despite the roadblocks that union and lobbyists will attempt to use.
Keep up the fight,
Thanks…and you are correct, the establishment is “dug in” behind deep entrenchments.
One thing I’d point out – the VA can already can dismiss employees for cause – either misconduct or performance (or both).
I used to represent VA employees fired and suspended before the Merit Systems Protection Board. The only thing that the VA handles worse than a VA claim is a termination action. Sometimes, I got the sense that they WANTED to lose.
If they would just follow their own rules, they could fire every bad apple there.
I hope we’ve gotten a leader at the helm…I’ll be watching closely!
Excellent letter you covered everything that’s wrong. I have my doubts that he’ll listen, but one can hope.