October 1999/November 1999
It's Time To Put Up Or Step Down At The Veterans Administration
By Rick Weidman, Director, Government Relations
Many veterans around the country, leaders in the veterans community,
and members of the Senate and House of Representatives have become impatient
andfrustrated with the lack of leadership from the top of the Veterans
Administration. VVA and others want and expect pro-active and decisive
leadership from the Secretary of this powerful presidential Cabinet
VVA has been very impressed with many of the talents of VA Secretary
Togo D. West, Jr. He is a very skillful public speaker. He can portray
a Secretary very well in ceremonial occasions and in carefully orchestrated
public events. He is charismatic in his ability to greet and talk to people,
and outside of the VA. In these ceremonial roles, he makes an
excellent impression, particularly the first or second time that people
hear him speak.
However, it has become painfully apparent that Secretary West is unwilling
to stand up and ask for proper funding for veterans' health care or claims
adjudication. In the struggle to secure reasonably adequate funds just
to keep the veterans' health care system from totally falling apart, West
rendered himself virtually irrelevant in the struggle to achieve a
workable budget for VA, and for all practical purposes, was a nonparticipant
in this hard-fought effort. Seemingly there is a conscious and concerted
effort on the part of the secretary to avoid interacting directly with
his own staff,
and even worse, with veterans in vital need of his agency's services.
The secretary rarely, if ever, takes questions at public appearances and
has repeatedly ducked opportunities to meet formally and informally with
members of Congress--even those from his own political party. Only recently
has he begun to modify this disdain for elected officials, and only for
Members he selects.
Only when he was recently under oath on Capitol Hill and literally cross-examined
by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), did Secretary West tell the truth about
his role in the Clinton administration's shamefully and grossly inadequate
fiscal year 2000 VA health care budget. Under Sen. Specter's
relentless questioning, Secretary West admitted that he refused to
ask for a meeting with President Clinton after it became clear that the
health-care budget of $17.3 Billion was going to be sent to the Congress.
The secretary refused, despite the fact that his staff warned him that
the budget would
make "devastating cuts in vitally needed veterans services.'' This
seeming inability or unwillingness to listen to stakeholders or even his
own staff, or to be engaged in the substance of actually leading the VA
as an organization, or to take responsible action in a reasonable time
frame, has been deeply disturbing to the members and leadership of Vietnam
Veterans of America.
Further, Secretary West has delayed or avoided--some have said ‘ducked'--proper
action on a host of important issues facing veterans. Certainly first on
this list is the failure to stand up for equitable and vitally needed funding
for his Department and the veterans whom he serves. Other issues where
he has been seemingly AWOL include his lack of action on recommendations
from his own staff to declare diabetes mellitus a service-connected presumptive
condition due to exposure to Agent Orange. It includes his lack of action
on undiagnosed illnesses of Gulf War veterans, education benefits for future
veterans, action to create and preserve long-term care for our older veterans,
and a host of other substantive and vital issues.
America's veterans deserve and need someone to actually be Secretary
of Veterans Affairs--not someone to play the role. If Secretary West won't
lead, then he should step aside as he publicly said he would do earlier
The Secretary's previous statements, intended to diffuse a gathering
storm of demands for his resignation or removal, indicated that he would
leave when the budget process was complete. Well, the VA appropriations
process is now complete and has been signed by the President. The questions
remain: Why is Secretary West still there? When will he be leaving?
VVA rarely deals in personalities or ad hominem discussions. Our
goal at all times is to help veterans by keeping a sharp eye on what is
actually done by agencies and officeholders. If Secretary West is determined
to stay and not leave on his own, then he must start providing the substantive
active leadership needed.
VVA understands that in recent months Secretary West has intervened
and involved himself in the efforts to restore and preserve proper care
for veterans with Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI). This is the sort of involvement
and active caring veterans have a right to expect in all areas of veterans
services. If Mr. West won't or can't expand this tentative effort to
provide proper leadership, then he should leave, and leave soon.
The key here is substantive positive action and advocacy for the vital
needs of veterans. What happens is important, not who does it. If that
action is not forthcoming soon, then the question becomes one of whether
President Clinton and Vice President Gore are comfortable with West's brand
of leadership and are prepared to accept the consequences and the fallout
from the administration's lack of proper action to meet the needs of America's
veterans, particularly disabled veterans.
America's veterans need and deserve leadership that is concerned with
the quality of medical care for veterans who have been wounded on a distant
battlefield. We need VA leadership that cares about proper, accurate, and
timely adjudication of claims. In short, veterans need and deserve
leadership that cares about--and acts decisively and effectively to
better accomplish--the noble mission of VA-- "to care for those who hath
borne the battle.''
E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org