Opinion

For our veterans’ sake, appoint Miller VA chief and pass reform legislation

We’ve editorialized on such a variety of malfeasance, mismanagement and mayhem within the vast federal bureaucracy that we’re beginning to lose hope that the ship can be righted without massive overhaul.

Two bills are floating around Congress in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Either would be a step in the right direction — particularly with addressing an estimated 450,000 appeals to denied claims that are pending and take an average of three years to process. That means veterans are sometimes waiting for critical services while fighting the VA’s decision not to pay for them.

Several months ago we would have been more likely to call for the passage of the Senate version, the 400-page Veterans First Act, which promises to streamline the appeals process, allow quicker resolution of disciplinary actions against employees, while also offering some rewards to the hundreds of hardworking VA employees, many of whom are highly trained medical staff accepting less pay for a government job.

That’s the compromise bill — and compromise is often a good thing.

But this is a complicated time. The compromise bill is more likely to be signed by Obama, but less likely to win approval of Republicans who might choose to wait for President-elect Donald Trump to take office.

So today we are calling for the harsher option, the Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, in the House. Because our veterans have waited long enough.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is the prime sponsor of the bill. He is also chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs who has followed the VA crisis from the moment a whistleblower unveiled secret wait lists designed to hide the true horror of the problem.

Miller is being considered by Trump to take the helm of the VA in his new administration, one that the president-elect has promised will be focused on addressing government inefficiencies and waste.

We’ve been encouraged by the work Miller has done to hold the VA accountable and the support he gave to ensure that the half-finished, grossly over-budget hospital in Aurora, Colo., someday be opened to serve veterans.

Miller would be a good pick to improve services for veterans.

And his legislation, which would make it far easier to discipline problem employees, would help pave the way.

Obama has opposed portions of Miller’s bill because it “significantly alters and diminishes important rights and protections that are available to the vast majority of other employees across the government and which are essential to safeguarding employees’ rights and the merit system.”

We disagree that altering and diminishing those rights is a bad thing, at this point. If the experiment doesn’t work, and talented employees flee the VA, surely something can be done. If it is successful, perhaps it could be applied to other federal agencies with less than sterling reputations (we’re looking at you IRS).

We know that among 330,000 employees in the VA, many if not the vast majority are hardworking and dedicated to serving veterans. It’s not lost on us that it is often a labor of love that keeps talent in the civil service.

But from problems with suicide hotlines, to long wait times, to backlogged claims, to refusals for service, our veterans can’t wait any longer.

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