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Honoring Our Dead, Not Forgetting Our Living (2015)

IMG_3984_-_Washington_DC_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery

I wrote this last year, in the wake of the Department of VA scandal. This is updated to show what has not changed (a lot) and what has changed (a little). And that we should still be angry and try and keep the count of those we honor on the Fourth Monday of May to the smallest number possible. The update is at the end.

Here are several things I am not: Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative.

Here is one thing I am: A Veteran. A Veteran that looks at Memorial Day and wonders what to say when people on Memorial Day thank me or others, because, I survived and Memorial Day is for those who gave their lives in service to our country.

But then I look at the news today and we have service members that nominally survived the actual war and are dying every day. And we, as a country, look the other way. I’m not talking about those who are getting shot at, nor those that died many years ago, we should continue to honor them, and remember them. I am talking about those that die because they can’t navigate our Veteran’s Health Care system, that have gotten sick (or even POSSIBLY sick) due to their service and can’t get benefits. Recently in the news, we’ve heard about hidden waiting lists at a VA hospital. And I guarantee, that like the saying with Cockroaches, that if you see one, you have a hundred. Yet we let the Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki stay as head of the VA. We protect the federal appointees and bureaucrats, because they haven’t had due process, when our sick and dying veterans are not given the same benefit. We give the VA the benefit of the doubt, we hold hearings, but no one is fired, no one’s pension is taken away, and we focus on more programs for vets, promise that the latest and greatest IT program will solve the problems, but we don’t get that the problem has nothing to do with any of that. The problem is people, leadership and accountability.

The VA had, as of December 2013, 340,926 Employees. 2,247 Employees were separated due to performance. (that’s .65% for you figuring at home). At the same time, almost $400 MILLION dollars were given as bonuses to an organization that fails year after year (according to their own IG reports) to serve the very people that give the VA employee a job. That bonus pool averages to about a bonus of $1,100 dollars for EVERY VA employee for letting Veterans die, get sick or just plain give up on their watch.

The reason I’m not a Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative for this post is because this problem isn’t owned by Democrats, Republicans, Liberals or Conservatives. It’s owned by all of them, and all of us, and this is not a recent problem.

A couple years ago, I lost my health care due to high cost. As a Veteran, I had hoped to get support from the VA. I registered online to have my first appointment, just to get registered and get my Veteran’s Health Card. The wait for an appointment was over two months. This was not to receive any care. This was just to fill out paperwork and get a card, so I could then make another appointment to get care. As this is all online, we’ve lost the personal touch that makes people understand the needs of other humans. It’s nearly impossible to get a voice on the other end of a phone, to meet someone face to face. We hide behind technology in the name of efficiency and lose our humanity to those that need it most. To the VA, I was not a Veteran, I was a number, a statistic and a calendar entry. This culture doesn’t change with the voting the President or Congress out, or simply having the head of the VA change. This culture changes with making the career bureaucracy at the VA change.

In case you wonder, I worked for several years supporting the VA. I saw over and over, employees focus on ensuring they got their ‘compress’ day because they worked extra hours over the rest of the week. I have to tell you while many were present at work, work wasn’t getting done. Sports scores were being checked, two hour social lunches were held in the cafeteria, shopping was done in the stores at the VA, and leaving early was important for that doctor’s appointment (how does a VA employee get those easy appointments while the Veterans they nominally serve get nothing?)

I also met dedicated VA employees. The problem is they are being dragged down by the others that don’t do their work, so increasing the VA budget solves nothing other than paying for inefficiency. And government workers will shout “not all government workers are bad” and I can only reply “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” And rest assured, letting Veterans die while you do your work, but letting the person next to you shirk their duties is evil.

We truly have the world’s greatest and most capable military, have a half a trillion dollar budget, incredible weapons systems and technology that can find a single person and strike at them, but somehow our Veterans get lost at home…and then die.

What you should do this Memorial Day. Honor the Dead. Enjoy your friends and family. And while I want you to share this post or use your own words to add awareness, I ask for more, only share this as a commitment to add your voice by writing your congressman, making calls to your senator, contacting the White House and voting to make sure we don’t have to honor more dead by forgetting the living. And when you write or call, let people know you did it, let people know what you said, and most importantly, let people know that you are asking them to do it as well. And next Memorial Day, don’t forget. Please keep this as an issue until true change happens and not just while it is in the latest news reports.

Updates at the VA

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki was replaced by Robert McDonald, a former Army Vet who served  lied about being in Special Operations Forces.  What else could he have lied about?  Well on February of this year he said that since he took over in Jun of 2014, he has fired 900 personnel, of which 60 were related to the scandal above. Looking at a comparison of data from the end of 2013 (my original data), to Sept, 2014, we have the following changes.

CategoryDec 2013FY 2014DifferenceSource
Employment340,926348,7247,798Dec 2013 and Sept 2014 OPM FedScope Data - Employment Data Cube
Seperations for Performance2,2642,572308Dec 2013 and Sept 2014 OPM FedScope Data - Seperation Data Cube
Seperation Rate.66%.74%244

Basically, on average between 2200 and 2500 personnel are fired from the VA each year, at a whopping number way below 1% at an agency that operates in a substandard fashion, to include being responsible for the deaths of people they are meant to protect. Mr. McDonald when he made that statement in February of 2015. about 2/3 of a year. In other words, what he is BRAGGING about , is getting rid of less people than the average and claiming he is being tough and cleaning things up.In addition, he claimed he fired 60 people related to the scandal itself. I’ll let the WashPo article speak to that – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/02/18/no-the-va-has-not-fired-60-people-for-manipulating-wait-time-data/

And for the improvement of wait times???

VA wait TimesMay 15 2014October 1 2014May 1 2015Notes
Total Appts Scheduled5,990,4585,913,0705,929,069So assume on Average close to 12M per month, 144M per year
Appts scheduled over 30 Days591,129355,396423,831If improvement holds, that’s an annual improvement of 4M per year, with over 10M still not getting appointments in 30 days
% not scheduled in 30 Days9.866.017.15%An improvement of about 25%
New Enrollee Appt Requests not scheduled63,8693,004These included all appts requested up to 10 years prior
New Patient Primary Care Wait in Days51.23Note they stopped splitting New Patient vs
Established Patient Primary Care Wait in Days3.56Established Patients, I assume because the number was so embarrassing. By blending the times together, new patient issues are hidden.
Ave Patient Primary Care Wait in Days6.437.79Not IMPROVED
New Patient Mental Health Care Wait in Days36.14see prev new vs established patient note
Established Patient Mental Health Care Wait in Days2.57see prev new vs established patient note
Average Patient Mental Health Care Wait in Days4.114.89Not IMPROVED

From what I can see, the VA stopped reporting on New Appointments because it was embarrassing that they still had an average over 30 days. Don’t like the statistic, change it. For all the effort, they, on average, have improved by about 2.5 percentage points in appointments over 30 days, and for the backlog of people that never got appointments (over the last 10 years), that’s been reduced to almost nil (60K to 3K). I wonder how many of those died while waiting so are no longer counted?

And what has Congress and the President Done?

Well on August of 2014, 16 BILLION dollars was added to the VA budget for this effort. so in about the same time as the VA secretary has been in office, we’ve reduced the number of people that aren’t getting appointments or having to wait over 30 days by about 4 Million Per Year. That means to improve by that much, its costing $4,000 per Vet, and we’re still not meeting the target.  You would think Congress and the President would do something like … reduce Bonuses?  Yep, they sure did.

Prior to the scandal, the VA was authorized to provide up t0 400 Million per year in bonuses. To ensure we are not rewarding poor performance, congress is now only authorizing up to $360 Million a year for Bonuses. Still enough to give every VA employee over a $1000 bonus, for hiding reporting, not improving wait times and having a VA secretary that plays rather fast and loose with the truth and NO additional firings beyond the norm.

Nothings changed.

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