It used to be the comment “close enough for government work” was intended as a compliment: that standards and performance were so high – or at least thought to be – that they were examples to follow.
How things have changed. Now, standards are so low that government executives are rewarded for falling short. That’s how it is in the Veterans Health Administration, anyway.
The implosion of Veterans Affairs was documented this week at a congressional hearing in Pittsburgh, Pa., where significant failures there and in Buffalo were turned over like rocks on damp earth.
The conduct was intolerable. In Pittsburgh, the VA’s regional medical director, Michael E. Moreland, received a performance award from President Obama and a $62,895 bonus despite an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, and a response to it that was either criminal or incompetent – or both. An investigation into that question is under way. At least five people died because of the outbreak.
Buffalo’s problems came under scrutiny, too. Here, the improper reuse of insulin pens on diabetic patients produced at least 20 exposures to hepatitis. In addition, thousands of patient records were misfiled or damaged. Meanwhile, David J. West, the VA’s upstate network director, got nearly $26,000 in bonuses in 2010 and 2011 – while those problems were occurring.
Dr. Robert A. Petzel, undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, downplayed it all. Bonuses and awards are routine, he said. The problems at Pittsburgh, Buffalo and three other facilities discussed at the meeting – in Dallas, Atlanta and Jackson, Miss. – are anomalies, he said, not routine. All is well.
Yet there was this: Gerald J. Rakiecki, a VA police officer in Buffalo, testified that Jason C. Petti, the hospital’s associate medical center director, conducted a review that found no major problems with the medical records in Buffalo. Yet when higher-ups found out that there were indeed problems, they exonerated Petti and said he provided appropriate oversight.
Because of that, “I do not trust the VA system,” said Rakiecki, a union leader who represents the whistle-blowers who exposed the records problem. “It is a system in which managers commit wrongdoing, cover it up and get rewarded for doing so.”
What should be clear to the members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that conducted the hearing is that significant problems require focused attention. The solutions are not likely to be easy, given the evident need to change the VA’s culture, but that is the task at hand.
As Rakeicki observed, “Veterans should not have to put their lives on the line twice for their country.”