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You’re Better, VA—Now Show Us Your Best!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia 
August 4, 2019

In 1997, I was on active duty with the United States Army as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the third largest distribution center base in the nation. That same year, the Hay Group penned an article about the Veterans Administration (VA) citing the need for a wholesale culture change in the organization. Here is part of that article’s abstract:

If [the VA] is to achieve the rapid, sustainable transformation needed to succeed in today’s environment, it must also change its culture. The rigid, functionally focused, command-and-control culture that has long been a hallmark of VA must be replaced by one that values speed, flexibility, and the processes for delivering high-quality, cost-effective patient care. Such a change will not come easily.

That was over twenty years ago—we are still waiting for that large-scale culture change. We have made some progress and many veterans are grateful for that. But it is too long in coming and mostly incremental. You may say, “Fine—I hear they are making improvements in the VA system currently.” True—but the VA itself confirmed in an August 2016 report (updated in August 2017) that twenty veterans each day lose their lives to suicide, some on the grounds of VA facilities. Six of those twenty were recent users of VA services in 2013 or 2014.

Here’s an example for what a substantial culture change could bring. The VA has made some relatively recent changes concerning the compensation appeals process. These changes accelerate the appeals process—reviews and decisions. While that’s a welcome change, why not go to the heart of the problem and retrain all its claims examiners so that our veterans can get what they deserve the first time they apply? While I cannot represent the character of all veterans, I can state with confidence that most of them are honest, ethical people. Very few of them are probably trying to game the system. I believe that the VA should establish a far more trusting culture in their regard. If a veteran says, “I didn’t complain about my medical problems while on the active rolls because I didn’t want to be considered as a, “Sick call rider,” or weak in any way, the VA should believe that veteran. Currently, the VA is only too ready to deny such claims because of lack of documentation.

I recently attended a webinar where top VA leaders discussed changes they are making to make the department more responsive. Their stated goals were.

  1. Provide veterans with the benefits they have earned in a manner that  honors their service.
  2. Ensure we are strong fiscal stewards of the money that is entrusted to us.
  3. Foster a culture of collaboration. 

Carefully measured discussion and employment of the right language and buzz words fell flat on my ears. I do not care anymore what the VA says—I only care what it does. And it needs to do a whole lot more for our nation’s veterans.

The VA is one of the fifteen current government departments. It operates 150 hospitals nationwide and over 2,000 community-based outpatient clinics. It’s going to be difficult, but not impossible, to achieve a massive culture change in a large, bureaucratic government organization. In addition to the normal hurdles, several barriers are unique to VA. As the Hay report stated, “To drive the change, the leadership must be mobilized as a team, new work processes must be developed and a full range of human resource processes must be established.”

Our local clinic in Odessa, Texas is an exemplar of what all VA clinics should be like. Outside the clinic is a memorial site dedicated to American hero Chris Kyle. The statue of Chris Kyle is pointed toward the VA clinic by design. He cared so much for his fellow veterans and did all he could to help them. I have decided to be a stronger voice for veterans and I know others will pick this mantle up as well, following Kyle’s lead. If we don’t get someone in there who understands culture change and change management soon, we will continue to cheat our veterans out of their just due. We won’t be able to call ourselves a, “Grateful nation,” in their regard. We need action, not attitudes and platitudes.

Veterans postponed their civilian careers for the higher calling of defending our way of life. For our part, let us not postpone our help to them as they return to their communities and rejoin the families they thought about every day during their service to country. Congress recently passed a $10B bill to ensure the continuity of the 9/11 first responder fund. I’m glad it did and applaud that legislation. Don’t you think, however, that Congress should act with equal speed to help our veterans? Veterans are members of this nation’s first responder community as well. If Congress or the VA need expert help in culture and change management, there are plenty of us who are qualified in those areas.

Author: Dr. Robert Brescia serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS television and at the Permian Basin American Red Cross. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.


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