Trump’s Hardest Choice: VA Reformer

President-elect taking time to find the right fit for shakeup of scandal-plagued veterans health system

President-elect Donald Trump is taking his time picking a new chief for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

Under President Obama, the department was plagued with scandals and even untimely deaths.

“The biggest problems facing veterans using the VA are long wait times and manipulation of data.”

A Phoenix VA facility was even caught altering the records of its offices to hide the medical wait times for veterans. In October, after a lengthy examination, the inspector general said more than 200 veterans died while waiting for medical care at a VA hospital in Phoenix.

According to Fox News, two years earlier, the facility was at the center of a scandal in which patient records were altered to hide the length of people’s waiting periods.

As Trump often said on the campaign trail, America’s veterans deserve better. And voters appeared to resoundingly agree with him.

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The wounds and scars from the last two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were deep, and wounded soldiers need continued care. But vets from earlier conflicts in Iraq, Vietnam and even peacetime are beginning to age. The VA has long been buckling under the strain.

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Care of vets and soldiers wasn’t just a problem under Obama. In February 2007, it was revealed that Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which treated soldiers with serious injuries, was the site of some neglect and poor security.

The Washington Post reported that in Reed’s Building 18 alone, the site had become infested with roaches, mice, rats and mold. The building also had problems with heat and hot water.

In September of this year, it was disclosed that one-third of all calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide-prevention hotline go unanswered, according to a former VA official who ran the hotline.

And in mid-2014, after the revelations about secret waiting lists that may have led to the deaths of dozens of veterans, then-VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned.

Stories of VA incompetence continued to trickle out after the VA inspector general’s 2014 report.

Compounding the problem is the suicide rate of U.S. veterans. A VA report released last summer found that 20 veterans killed themselves every day.

A major problem with the VA is that it is set up for a population dominated by World War II and Korean War veterans, said Dan Caldwell, the policy director for Concerned Veterans of America. The department is not set up to handle veterans from more recent wars such as the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

“The biggest problems facing veterans using the VA are long wait times and manipulation of data” on wait times, said Caldwell.

He said wait times are still ballooning, adding that wait times have actually gotten worse since the 2014 report. The wait times lead to delayed health care, which often leads to poor health outcomes, he said.

Thus, it is up to Trump to pick someone with health care experience. But the president-elect also needs to pick someone who can “disrupt” business as usual at the VA, and make true changes, even if it ruffles feathers. This wouldn’t necessarily mean someone whose career focused on health care.

Reportedly, Trump is considering Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, 75, a former heart surgeon. Cosgrove may be the frontrunner, Politico reports.

Trump has also considered former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican.

But real disruption could come from other choices. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has already been vetted for the State Department, although he did not get the role.

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Romney aggressively took control of the failing 2002 Winter Olympics and turned things around. He is known as an aggressive problem solver, working at Bain Capital to fix troubled companies.

Another political turnaround artist would be former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, now the president of Purdue University. Daniels managed the U.S. Office of Management and Budget during the first few years of the Bush administration, and ruffled congressional feathers with his cost-cutting schemes.

He was then elected Indiana governor in 2004 and again in 2008. Daniels shook Indiana government up.

His reforms led to an improvement of the long-troubled Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Daniels also pushed for the construction of new highways, including the beginning of Interstate 69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville.

Whoever the choice is, the appointment is obviously seen by Trump as the most sensitive — it is the only Cabinet-level appointment other than agriculture secretary that remains unfilled. The next VA secretary needs to be an open and energetic leader, making data public and putting veterans first.

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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