Problems at VA still in focus on Capitol Hill


House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), left, presides over a hearing about the Department of Veterans Affairs on June 9. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

House lawmakers have embarked on an aggressive schedule of hearings and investigations into the Department of Veterans Affairs in hopes of rooting out any more examples of missteps by senior officials and mismanaged or delayed care.

The effort, led by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), is backed by public polling that shows widespread outrage over the botched care for military veterans.

House and Senate negotiators plan to meet Tuesday to begin writing compromise legislation that will merge several proposals introduced in recent months to help the VA tackle treatment delays and enact broader changes at the department. A final bill is expected to draw from the bipartisan agreement recently passed by the Senate and from several standalone bills passed by the House this spring.

Talks are being led by Miller and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Colleagues, aides and veterans organizations agree that while Sanders has been critical of the VA’s missteps, Miller is more aggressively probing what went wrong at the department — and was doing so long before most of Washington was paying attention. In a town broken by partisanship and political calculation, this is a little bit of an oddity.

“It takes a certain amount of critical mass for the media and people on Capitol Hill to pay attention” to veterans issues, said Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “That finally got breached, but at critical mass minus one, Miller and his people were still out there doing this. He’s been out there raising flags and sounding the alarm, and others have been joining him, and it suddenly has hit a critical point.”


Miller speaks with Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) on June 9 on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Nicholson added that the committee has focused on veterans concerns “almost to the point of tedium, but that’s probably a good thing in this case.”

As Congress gets down to the actual task of fixing the VA, Miller said the nation’s renewed concern for veterans care gives him the mandate to keep going. Despite promises by the White House to more closely monitor veterans care, Miller said, the VA will improve only if Congress keeps a watchful eye.

At the VA, “they’re very good about telling the story they want you to believe and to hear,” he said in a recent interview. “The system has got to change, and accountability is I think one of the best ways to reinstill in many people that work at VA that you don’t work for the system, you work for the veteran.”

The crisis in veterans care dominated talk on Capitol Hill and led to the sudden resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. But attention has largely shifted in recent weeks to the situation in Iraq and the primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), which forced a closely watched snap election to succeed him as House majority leader.

But with midterm elections approaching, the VA crisis has become part of a larger GOP narrative. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested last week that “the wheels are coming off” the Obama presidency because of problems in veterans care, at the IRS, along the U.S.-Mexico border and with the nation’s stagnant economy.

With others seeking to politicize the issue, Miller said he is hiring five new committee investigators and reassigning other aides to help with an influx of new accusations and information. Boehner has promised Miller more money and manpower if needed, according to aides familiar with their talks.

Those aides say upcoming hearings and investigations will focus on the compensation of senior VA officials; what the department is doing to prevent suicides among military veterans; chronic backlogs in processing and distributing veterans benefits; a look at how private hospitals might be able to treat veterans; an exploration of faulty software used to schedule patient appointments; and follow-up investigations regarding patient wait times — the issue that prompted Shinseki’s ouster.

On Monday night, the veterans committee was set to explore how the VA plans to speed up care for veterans trying to enter the system. On Friday, the panel reviewed data that found that all of the nearly 500 top VA executives received top performance ratings in recent years despite delays in processing disability claims and delayed care for veterans trying to enter the health-care system.

Later in the summer, Miller and committee members are planning to visit Florida, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere for field hearings on problems at specific medical centers, according to aides familiar with the plans.

Unlike other Republican committee chairmen accused by the White House and congressional Democrats of using their perches for political gain, Miller is largely credited by Democrats for working with them to address concerns at the department.

“Jeff Miller is the right man at the right time doing the right job,” said Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), whose Atlanta district was rocked by a series of patient suicides at a VA medical center in the city. Department officials initially rebuffed Scott’s requests for information about the suicides, so he turned to Miller, who quickly traveled to the hospital and demanded information from hospital managers.

When Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) kept hearing from constituents concerned about the VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., he struggled to determine whether the issues were isolated or part of a broader problem. He credits Miller for his sustained focus on the department’s troubles and for sparking a new national debate about veterans care.

“As disappointing as it is to see this across the country, it’s not as surprising to those of us who saw it early on,” he said in a recent interview. Barrow added later: “Nothing’s going to get done unless it’s done in a bipartisan fashion. Nothing meaningful can get done in Congress unless it’s done that way. And Miller is one of the few standout leaders who’s made it his modus operandi.”

Miller grew up in the Florida panhandle and won his congressional seat just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after former congressman Joe Scarborough suddenly resigned. Miller’s path to Washington mirrors many other southern Republican lawmakers: A former Democrat, he switched parties and climbed the ranks of the state legislature before winning his congressional seat.

Miller is also a former radio disc jockey and television weathercaster who studied journalism at the University of Florida. He was surprised this spring when concerns with VA mismanagement caught the attention of the national press. The Arizona Republic and CNN first reported accusations by VA whistleblowers that at least 40 veterans had died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Within days, lawmakers were taking cues from Miller about what to do and say.

“I wish I knew what it was about the Phoenix story that caught the press’s attention because I’ve been chairman for three years, and we have been screaming from the top of the mountains about wasteful spending on conferences, disability backlog, waste, fraud and abuse in the system, waiting times for patient care, sterilization procedures gone amok,” he said. “We would get some local attention for some of our investigations, but for some reason the national media wasn’t paying attention. At this point, the media’s involvement is a good thing because it’s helping to drive the story and impress upon the Department of Veterans Affairs that this is deadly serious.”

Weeks after the news broke and Shinseki departed, the White House is still looking for a new VA secretary. Might Miller want the job?

He chuckled when asked — but he didn’t say no: “I am happy serving as the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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