The VA scandal never needed a face.
If there is an issue that Americans tend to agree on, it is that 20 million American veterans of war deserve medical treatment that reflects their sacrifice. Without exception, their injuries are unique to the average American, and too often they are chronic, unshakeable.
For injuries both visible and underlying, veterans deserve exceptional care. “Care,” in the case of the VA, has been the exception.
A report issued in May 2014 confirmed what millions of veterans’ anecdotal accounts led Americans to believe: the Department of Veterans Affairs had become the face of bureaucratic incompetence and even willful malevolence, and the victims were former soldiers, many of whom teeter on the brink of sanity daily.
Putting a face on this still under-reported national atrocity couldn’t hurt.
As Michael Verardo walked the span of a few feet from his seat in the East Ball Room to the podium donning the United States seal, his injuries were hardly visible. A slight imbalance in his gait was noticeable as Verardo steadied himself, notes in hand. But to those not in attendance, Verardo’s prosthetic leg remained out of the camera’s view, while his blazer covered the synthetic stand-in where tendons, muscle, and bone used to be.
These injuries, sustained while thanklessly fulfilling untenable military burdens taken on by non-soldiers, rendered him unable to hold a weapon. Unable to walk, let alone run. They left him chronically disabled.
While an IED booby-trapped and embedded in the heart of Afghanistan’s notorious Kandahar Province claimed Verardo’s left arm and leg, it was a bloated, scandal-ridden Veterans Affairs Department that had robbed him of the dignity befitting a wounded veteran.
Like millions before him, Verardo became a financial burden to his nation; a spent round. He was cast onto the pile of wounded veterans, hands extended, to a governmental agency that offers in return only an unqualified, unmotivated fleet of caregivers interested in little more than preserving their employment.
So he went through the hoops that broken veterans are subjected to as a matter of practice by the VA. A 57-day wait for the prosthetic leg he needed to literally begin his healing. Weekly trips to the VA hospital, some only to reaffirm for the umpteenth time that he had in fact been wounded during the course of military service. Over 100 surgeries. A staff that tried, according to Verardo, but was under-equipped for the varying needs of veterans with mental and physical ailments ranging the gamut.
“I knew that such injuries were a risk of the enlistment that I made,” Verardo said. “What I was not prepared for, was coming home to a broken VA system. I wasn’t prepared to wait 57 days for a signature on a piece of paper so that my only prosthetic limb could be repaired. I wasn’t prepared to be asked to make a three-hour, round trip so that, just last year, they could check to see if I still had my serious combat injuries.”
As Verardo’s wife Sarah stood behind him, face alternating between pride and painful, genuine empathy, her husband made it clear that the VA’s incompetence had not affected him alone.
“I wasn’t prepared to watch my wife beg, plead, and make countless phone calls so that I could receive what was often basic and necessary medical care.”
Verardo and his family have endured unthinkable hardship as the result of the VA’s willful cover-up of appointments not scheduled and care not received. The findings of the 2014 Griffin Report exposed chronic mistreatment of veterans, resulting in the resignation of the former secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki.
Findings included that at the Phoenix VA hospital alone, as many as 1,700 veterans who were supposed to be put on appointment wait lists simply were not; all of whom may have never received care. It is thought that several of these untreated patients may have succumbed to their conditions before ever receiving care, an allegation that the VA has yet to dispel.
Further, waiting times were consistently covered up and/or misreported, a systemic manipulation of statistics that directly led to higher performance reviews and bonuses. It was widely known that in many, if not most, VA hospitals alternate waiting lists- one falsified and one real- were kept. While Shinseki denied knowledge of this chronic corruption, politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed that his time in charge of the VA had come to an end, whether he was willing to embrace that reality or not.
Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that Mr. Shinseki, “appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department,” were he to take Shinseki’s assertion that he was unaware of VA waiting time cover-ups as truth.
Fortunately, the VA has been in competent hands since mid-2015, when Dr. David Shulkin was appointed as the Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Though he is the first director not to be a veteran himself, Shulkin has shown an eagerness and competence in his time as director that makes his military record, or lack thereof, irrelevant. After all, maligned director Eric Shinseki was a veteran, how did that turn out?
Shulkin balances life resurrecting the reputation of the VA with caring for his wife, who has dementia. He is not a man who cowers in the face of life’s challenges.
Since his appointment, he has spent countless hours utilizing Skype-like technology to diagnose and follow up with patients. He has also considered the dire state of the VA, and what needs to be done to revive the department long running on life support:
“We’re in critical condition, but moving toward stable,” he said, his brow furrowed. “The V.A. has experienced a very, very tough time. It lost the most important thing any organization could have: its trust.”
As part of the overhaul, Trump’s signing of the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act allows Shulkin the freedom to trim the fat while retaining those dedicated to helping restore veterans back to a functional, healthy state.
The bill will expedite the demotion and firing processes, as well as restrict limitations on appeals by fired employees. Fired employees will also be taken off of the payroll during the appeals process. Other punitive measures such as revocation of bonuses or pensions for offending employees are also allowed for.
The hiring of new employees, particularly of directors for VA medical centers, will be primarily overseen by Shulkin. The bill also professes to allow for more freedoms for whistleblowers who hope to cite improvements to be made within the department. As the bill’s name implies, this is done in the spirit of preventing similar, widespread abuses of power in future iterations of the VA.
This profile reveals Dr. Shulkin to be the qualified, dutiful candidate that the VA needs, and he has made clear that his aim is not to fire, but to tighten the ship and make sure everybody on board pulls their weight.
Rest assured there will be plenty of firing.
When one acknowledges the horrors that have been imposed upon veterans under systematically corrupt practices at the hands of VA leadership and its apathetic employees, few tears are to be shed. This is a day of optimism, so ignore the mobs of angry union heads doling out blame to everybody but their members for paychecks lost.
Just ask Sgt. Michael Verardo, the face of the VA scandal and the department’s impending fat-trimming.
“Under the previous administration I waited over three-and-a-half years for required adaptive changes to be made so that I could safely reside in my own home,” Verardo said. “Under President Trump, with the assistance of Secretary Shulkin, these changes were made within weeks.”
Verardo asks of VA employees only what he himself exhibited, sacrificing two limbs, his long-term health, and life as he knew it in the process; he asks for a servant’s heart in those administering care to veterans.
Now more than ever it appears as if the VA may be headed by a doctor, though not a soldier himself, equipped with just such a heart.