The Department of Veterans Affairs started the year with a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. Last year wasn’t stellar, considering one-third of the veterans waiting for care from the Department have died, and this year doesn’t look like it will be any easier.
On Tuesday, a mental health worker at the Tomah, Wisconsin, branch of the Department was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a patient. He faces seven charges of sexual assault, but astonishingly, is still being paid by the Department.
Because if there’s one thing government employees can count on—it’s job security.
Then on Wednesday, a report from ProPublica found that while the VA had committed more than 10,000 privacy violations since 2011, no one had been held accountable.
At least 15 complaints were against employees who had posted pictures of patients or their medical information, including one incident of a veteran’s exposed buttocks.
Sometimes a VA employee would mail one veteran the medical records of another veteran. At other times, VA employees would actually improperly access medical records in order to spy on a patient. One complaint against an employee found they accessed a veteran’s medical records—in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—61 times. The employee even posted the private medical information on her Facebook page and “discussed it with her friends,” according to the report.
The only punishment this employee received was a two-week suspension. She still has her job. She’s not even the only one to post private medical information on social media. At least 15 complaints were against employees who had posted pictures of patients or their medical information, including one incident of a veteran’s “exposed buttocks” being posted.
Another employee accessed her ex-husband’s medical records 260 times. Beyond spying on patients, VA employees were also found to have used the medical records of other employees in order to silence whistleblowers. Between 2010 and May 2013, the medical files of 551 VA employees were compromised, according to a report by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
This terrible weeks follows a relatively good week for the VA. Before New Year’s, the Department of Justice closed 46 of the 55 pending cases of excessive wait times at the VA. Sure, 9 investigations may go forward, but considering the reports of wait times leading to deaths, it’s disheartening to learn that no charges will be filed. Disheartening, but not surprising. This is the federal government, after all, and accountability is not its strong suit.
Even more disturbing, the DOJ declined to prosecute two VA officials who defrauded the Department out of $400,000. The Inspector General even requested they face criminal charges for their conduct. Again, government, it’s a sweet gig.
So what have we learned so far? That if one denies veterans medical care, shares their private medical information, steals hundreds of thousands of dollars from the VA and sexually assaults patients, they’ll still have a job. That’s horrifying.
Despite the past two years of attention to the VA and its horrific failures—including, as mentioned above, the deaths of veterans—reform is nowhere to be seen. It’s not a major talking point in the presidential election, and not all of the candidates are making it a campaign issue.
Donald Trump, the current GOP frontrunner, has called the Department “probably the most incompetently run agency in the United States” and said that he would “fire everybody.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio introduced legislation—which was signed into law—that allowed the VA secretary to fire poor-performing executives. It was a nice gesture, but as has been demonstrated above, unlikely to happen.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has also released a plan to fix the VA, although neither he nor Mr. Rubio have made reform a central campaign issue. Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich have also articulated plans to reform the VA. Carly Fiorina has also spoken on the issue, calling the agency “a stain on our nation’s honor.”
On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton doesn’t appear to believe there’s much of a scandal, telling MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in October 2015 that the problems at the VA were “not as widespread as it has been made out to be.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was criticized for his role as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee while the VA atrocities were taking place.
Unsurprisingly, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the only Democrat running who has offered a plan to help veterans and is not tainted by past inaction, like Mr. Sanders. But of course, Mr. O’Malley is still only polling at 3 percent or so.
The VA scandal might not be at the height of the news cycle like it was last year or the year before, but it’s still there, and the department still needs to be fixed. It’s a problem the presidential candidates need to make a bigger campaign issue.