'Unacceptable’: VA Secretary Wilkie didn’t show up to oversight hearing, so Congress broadcast his empty seat

Abbie Bennett
May 22, 2019 - 8:40 am

Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs is considered "high risk" by its watchdogs because of failings of leadership, technology, accountability and other issues. 

Despite some progress, both the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the VA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) say more needs to be done to address critical issues affecting veteran care and benefits which is why members of Congress were frustrated that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was a no-show at a House Veterans Affairs Committee  hearing about those issues and recommended solutions. 

Congress broadcast his empty seat and HVAC leadership called his absence “unacceptable.”

Wilkie, in written testimony provided before the hearing, said that the VA “would have liked to participate in this hearing; unfortunately, to do so would have been contrary to the longstanding practice of prior administrations and this administration by allowing executive branch officials to testify at a Congressional hearing on a panel that includes non-executive branch witnesses.”

The other witnesses at the hearing were VA watchdogs, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and VA Inspector General Michael Missal.

HVAC chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the VA “refused to participate in the hearing” in “unprecedented and unacceptable fashion.”

“By not appearing today, VA is ignoring an opportunity to show that it cares about addressing the serious concerns GAO and the IG have identified,” Takano said. “Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee the federal government and this Committee will not abandon its responsibility to protect the interests of veterans, their families, and taxpayers.”

“Frankly, I find the VA’s absence at today’s hearing unacceptable,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., oversight and investigations subpanel chairman. “The secretary did not offer any scheduling conflicts or other credible reasons for why he decided not to participate … VA’s refusal to even participate in today’s hearing speaks volumes.”

Dodaro and Missal, who were in attendance, detailed how several VA programs are still “high risk” and how many recommendations to fix issues throughout the VA still have not been implemented -- sometimes years later.

High-risk programs at the VA include: managing risks and improving VA health care; acquisition and management; improving and modernizing disability programs; managing claims and updating eligibility criteria, according to GAO. 

While the VA has seen improvements since Wilkie’s confirmation, GAO said “as of March 2019 VA programs still weren’t off the high-risk list in part because audits show areas of concern not fully addressed by the VA."

Those include:

  • Unreliable, or incomplete wait time data from the VA;
  • VA does not always complete required reviews of providers when allegations of wrongdoing are made;
  • VA does not fully define plans to modernize health records, “potentially jeopardizing” the fourth attempt to do so;
  • VA’s system for assessing medical center directors’ performances has major unaddressed issues “diminishing VA’s ability to hold officials accountable.”

Wait times for disability issues remain a major issue, according to GAO, and while the VA has made efforts to improve by bringing on new staff and new technology, not enough has been done.

The VA has committed to addressing the problems and has launched several efforts to modernize and streamline, “However, such success will only be achieved through sustained leadership attention and detailed action plans that include metrics and milestones to monitor and demonstrate VA’s progress,” GAO said in its report.

GAO has made more than 1,200 recommendations to the VA since 2000, and the department has implemented about 70 percent of them, Dodaro said. “However, important recommendations remain unimplemented (open), and we continue to identify similar deficiencies in recent and ongoing work.”

Though OIG gave the VA seven recommendations after a veteran died by suicide last year, less than 24 hours after being discharged from a VA facility, six of those seven recommendations remain open past the Jan. 31 target date.

OIG said it has commonly found poor governance, lack of leadership continuity, communication failures, failures to ensure accountability, poor financial management, IT failures, poor planning, failure to accept consequences of policy changes, HR/staffing issues, poor training, poor quality assurance, a culture of complacency, putting bureaucracy ahead of veterans and more systemic issues at the VA.

“The department is committed to implementing all … recommendations and moving off of GAO’s high-risk list,” Wilkie’s written testimony reads. “Our mission is to serve our veterans. We are committed to taking corrective action on all oversight recommendations to ensure that VA is the most efficient and effective organization possible for our veterans.”

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Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.