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Is Donald Trump Letting Veterans Down?

A sign supporting Donald Trump at a rally in Phoenix in 2016. (Gage Skidmore / CC 2.0)

By Aaron Glantz / Reveal

President Donald Trump won last year with the overwhelming support of military veterans, who had grown disgusted by scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Now in office, however, there are rising concerns that the agency is being neglected. Although Trump won plaudits for signing VA accountability legislation, the president has yet to nominate anyone to fill key leadership positions at the agency.

Meanwhile, across the veterans’ health care system, nearly one in 10 positions is vacant – 34,000 jobs in total. The list of empty positions includes psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers, increasing delays for veterans seeking care.

Seven months after Trump’s inauguration, here are some of the key VA vacancies:

  • The undersecretary for health is responsible for overseeing 168 medical centers and 1,053 outpatient clinics. The position has been vacant since Obama appointee David Shulkin was promoted to VA secretary by Trump. The undersecretary is responsible for ensuring that all 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care system receive quality, timely care.
  • The undersecretary for benefits oversees the compensation system for disabled and destitute veterans, along with pensions and GI Bill payouts. The position has gone unfilled since Obama appointee Allison Hickey resigned amid scandal in 2015. According to the VA, 345,000 veterans are currently waiting for benefits, including 85,000 who have been waiting more than four months. Nearly 300,000 veterans are waiting for the VA to rule on their appeal.
  • The undersecretary of memorial affairs manages the 135 cemeteries and 33 soldiers’ lots and monuments across 40 states and Puerto Rico. The position has gone unfilled since 2014 when Obama appointee Steven Muro retired amid allegations – subsequently substantiated – into preferential hiring and an improper relationship with an agency contractor.

Under a federal law designed to ensure qualified nominees for these administrative positions, the secretary of Veterans Affairs is required to nominate a panel of health care experts, veterans service organizations and industry leaders to lead a search committee. These experts then forward a list of names to the president. Even though the search committees have finished their work, nominations have not been forthcoming.

“America should be concerned,” said Allison Jaslow, a former U.S. Army captain who is now chief of staff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group. She said the lack of appointed leadership exacerbates problems with accountability at the scandal-plagued agency.

The vacancies are part of a far larger problem, she said: “They are lagging across the executive department, including the White House staff.”

In an email, VA press secretary Curt Cashour put a different spin on the leadership vacuum, arguing that each part of the VA bureaucracy was being run by a “highly experienced and capable leader serving in an acting capacity.”

“Our primary goal is to find the right permanent official for these critical roles rather than simply fill for expedience,” he wrote.

Cashour noted that Obama also lagged in making appointments for these positions. For example, Hickey – the first appointed undersecretary for benefits – didn’t officially start her role until June 2011, nearly two and a half years into Obama’s first term. Veterans groups point out that during that time, the number of veterans waiting for VA disability compensation skyrocketed to the point of national scandal.

In the hospital system, some worry that the lack of leadership could be contributing to hiring delays, which in turn contribute to long waits for care.

Of the 34,000 empty positions, just 4,400 are currently posted on USAJobs. The VA is currently looking for 957 doctors, 826 nurses, 130 psychologists and 256 people to help with outreach to homeless veterans.

In an interview, Rick Weidman, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, said the VA hiring backlog was a symptom of longstanding bureaucratic dysfunction: “They regard a candidate like fine wine – we have to age it – but you’re not making cheese and you’re not making wine.”

“They take forever to fill a vacancy and the VA has always lost good candidates because people can’t wait around that long,” he added.

Weidman said he had faith that Shulkin was trying to solve the problem. He’s less sure when Trump will appoint other agency leaders to help him out.

Aaron Glantz / Reveal

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