Shake Things Up

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News October 2014

With the mess the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been embroiled in the last few months, we’re finally coming to some sort of direction on what’s going to be done about it.

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Unfortunately, it appears that what I feared might happen, did indeed take place.

In an editorial I wrote recently, I talked about how we got in this mess and how it was inevitable that it was going to happen. I was afraid that Congress would get together, pass a bunch of laws, slap each other on the back for a job well done and go home to campaign. E’nuf said, that’s exactly what they did.

We don’t know for sure what’s in the final outcome from the bill that was passed, but we do know that it’ll dramatically change how business will be done. The question is, whether or not the new law is better or worse than what existed before. I’m fearful that it could be worse.

There are 22 Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) and I bet when the change gets down to them for interpretation, there will be 22 interpretations. This will continue until someone with authority and a hard fist has the moxy to step in and slap some people around and set what the final interpretation is going to be.

The new VA Secretary is Robert McDonald. He’s a graduate of West Point and spent five years in the Army. He has no combat or veterans experience. The majority of his life was spent managing Procter & Gamble. We have a president who is a lame duck, and we have elections in both houses of Congress which will change the political structure.

With all this taking place and a VA Secretary who will only have the job for two years, what we really need now is a tough, no-holds-barred person who only wants the job for two years and isn’t afraid of breaking some bones and shaking the establishment up on his or her way to restructuring the VA.

In other words, give us a George Patton clone for a secretary. Give us someone who is concerned about veterans’ care and not worried about whether or not the VA entrenched management is happy. We’ll have to see if Mr. McDonald is that George Patton.

There could not be a more appropriate time. The table is set and many of the problems have been identified. The political structure is in support of a radical, tough leader and he’s been given the tools to do the job. Let’s hope that the president got a tough leader for the VA and will back him when the pressure gets high.

It’s easy for Congress to collectively pass bills, but when the VA hospital director or VISN director gets back home, goes to the local politician for a shoulder to cry on and complains about possible loss of jobs, the political largesse comes into play.

We begin to see the politician who supported change when the camera was on him or her, but waffle back home if the impact has voter ramifications.

It’s deeply unfortunate that those veterans in Phoenix lost their lives or are worse off for the delay in their care. There are compassionate and caring doctors and other caregivers who have no interest in the politics of all this. All they want is an opportunity to help the men and women who were willing to place their lives on the line.

A perfect example of what can be done properly is the interim appointment of Sophia Chun, MD, to be the new Chief of Spinal Cord Injury Services. She’s one tough lady and should be given the tools to shape up the spinal-cord injury (SCI) unit system. She can do it.

A good start moved her under operations where she has some power rather than being a simple consultant. Chun’s abilities were covered in my February column (Good Leaders). She’s the new kind of leader that we need in all of the specialized care fields and is an example of what a VA Secretary can do to start cleaning house.

McDonald should change her appointment from interim to permanent and back her up when she makes efforts to fix things in the SCI system. We’ll have a different and better SCI system in some of those shameful places that call themselves SCI centers.

Those are my thoughts, let me hear yours.


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