Cox: VA Bill Satisfies AFGE

WASHINGTON–The new and sudden congressional compromise to try to solve medical access problems at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) satisfies the president of the union representing the agency’s employees, J. David Cox, a retired VA nurse.

In a brief interview on July 30, Cox said the union did not get all that it wanted out of the legislation, authored by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

“We’re reasonably pleased.  We didn’t get everything we wanted, but there will be more VA staff and we’re excited about moving forward” to improve the agency’s services to veterans, Cox said during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in D.C.

The measure, which Congress was expected to clear and send to Democratic President Barack Obama, addresses the rampant problems at the VA.  Newspaper investigations and AFGE rank-and-file whistle-blowers exposed many of the problems, virtually all at the managerial level.  Managers also retaliated against the AFGE whistle-blowers

The problems included enormous delays in initial medical examinations of ill and injured veterans, managerial coverup and alteration of the data that would have exposed the time lags and – as a result – prolonged illnesses and some deaths of veterans.

The Sanders-Miller legislation mandates building 27 new VA hospitals and clinics to treat the rising number of patients.  It allots $17 billion to both hire more doctors and nurses to help care for veterans and to let veterans who spend at least 30 days on VA waiting lists, or who live more than 40 miles from a medical center, go to other hospitals and clinics, at VA expense.

The measure also gives the new VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, more leeway in hiring and firing non-career top VA executives.

“Clearly, getting the vets taken care of is the top priority” of both Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson and of McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, Cox said.  The scandal over VA care – or lack of it – forced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who tried to institute reforms, to resign.  The Senate confirmed McDonald in his new post in late July.

Since the scandal broke earlier this year, thanks to whistle-blowers at VA hospitals in St. Louis and Phoenix, Cox has spent his time pointing out that rank-and-file VA workers, whom AFGE represents, were not responsible for the coverup, but managers were.

He also notes that once veterans get in the door – and getting in the door was the problem the scandals exposed – an overwhelming majority lauded their VA care.

Cox met with Gibson on the staffing and the scandal and found him committed to improving the agency.  “I’m looking forward to meeting McDonald” on those issues, he adds.