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Complacency Is the Enemy of Competence | Commentary

The crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs represents more than just an everyday political scandal.

Yes, it has grabbed shocking and sensational headlines. Yes, both parties have drawn lines in the sand with an eye toward November. But the harsh reality remains — this is a tragedy reaching far beyond stale talking points or canned sound bites. Men and women who braved hellish combat in defense of our country’s ideals simply couldn’t outlast the bureaucratic nightmare and substandard care they faced at the VA. In the end, the country they sacrificed so much for failed them.

It is true that this problem is longstanding, dating back to previous administrations. However, I am concerned that this president has not taken serious steps to address this issue, highlighting a management style simply unwilling to take on the status quo.

Prior to my service in Congress, I served from 2007 to 2009 as the chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. When then-Gov. Bob Riley called me into his office to ask me to serve in this post, the Community College System was riddled with corruption and incompetence that was failing our students while simultaneously costing taxpayers millions in waste. Years of mismanagement had created the widespread belief that this was a system in such poor shape, it would be nearly impossible to fix.

Good management is about setting priorities and making choices. As chancellor, I made it the policy of my office to cut the fat, fire corrupt or inept faculty and administrators, seek out and eliminate waste when appropriate and direct all possible resources toward priorities such as workforce development and training. Taking on the status quo isn’t easy. I earned the ire of unions and administrators alike who had grown comfortable in the way things were and always had been.

With each painful step toward reform, we kept our eye on the prize — a community college system able to keep up with the rising demand for workers as more businesses chose Alabama to set up shop; a community college system that operated in the bright sunlight of transparency and accountability and operated at a great value to the taxpayer. Today, I see the Alabama Community College System’s continued success as a crucial tool in the state’s ability to continue luring business to the Yellowhammer State.

The president was right to accept the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at the end of May. I only wish he had demanded it sooner. After all, the president’s initial reaction to this news was to offer up the “resignation” of Robert Petzel, under secretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year — making his departure a paltry concession in the face of mounting concerns.

The reality is that change will not come overnight to the VA. It has taken years and several administrations to get us to this point. But this is our moment to take action. I’m disappointed that the president seems intent on thinking small when looking at this problem — getting past the next news cycle and eschewing sweeping reform. Clearly, VA personnel have become too comfortable in the way things are and have been. It’s time for a shake-up in personnel and policy that will usher in the standard of care that our veterans deserve.

House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has advocated for a voucher system as a way to guarantee accessibility to care for veterans who have languished on waiting lists. Why not consider this approach? Complacency is the enemy of creativity and innovation, and we need leaders like Miller who are willing to think outside the box to get the job done on behalf of veterans who desperately need solutions.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor a silver bullet that will solve this issue in one fell swoop. I understand this is a longstanding issue that will take plenty of hard work to correct.

But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I worry that the president lacks the fire in the belly to aggressively tackle this issue and implement reforms that will work. Today, I’m continuing to search for new and different answers to ensure we have a health care system for our veterans that lives up to the standard they have earned. I hope for their sake the president will do the same.

Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Alabama.

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