Op-ed submitted by Lou Celli, American Legion Legislative Director
VA Secretary Shinseki should have the authority to manage his department
In 1976, 34 members of The American Legion died from pneumonia-like symptoms – and more than 200 others were stricken ill — while attending the veterans service organization’s annual convention in Pittsburgh. This newly discovered bacterium was named Legionella and its lethal effects became known as Legionnaires’ disease.
In 2011 and 2012, this deadly disease claimed the lives of five veterans and sickened 16 more; all were patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center in Pittsburgh.
Soon after the outbreak, we learned that the Pittsburgh VA knew about the contamination a full year before letting the public know. At a subsequent congressional hearing, VA Secretary Eric testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC) in Washington. When asked if he would remove the executives responsible for covering up the Legionella outbreak in Pittsburgh, and possibly contributing to the preventable deaths of veterans, Secretary Shinseki told the committee that he didn’t have the authority to remove them.
In a follow up letter to the committee, Shinseki maintained that he “didn’t think that he had the authority” to fire senior executives who could be responsible for preventable deaths at VA hospitals, or to simply remove executives who underperform.
The American Legion fully supports VA’s mission to provide the best quality of health care possible to veterans. Along with that support, the Legion also expects accountability and responsibility from VA employees – even the secretary – which is why we support a piece of legislation, H.R. 4031, introduced into the House by HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller.
This bill would give VA secretaries the authority to remove senior executives who are found to be derelict, underperforming, or not performing at all. The American Legion recognizes that the vast majority of VA employees are hard-working, dedicated professionals, who spend day after day caring for and supporting our nation’s veterans.
We also realize that no organization is perfect, and that the leaders at the top must have the authority, resources, and freedom to effectively manage their staff, if we are to hold them accountable for the success or failure of subordinates.
Normally, The American Legion doesn’t get involved in personnel decisions of the federal government, even when it comes to VA. But in order to ensure that VA secretaries have the power to remove senior executives when necessary – such as incompetent directors who supervise hospitals in which veterans die needlessly – we support Miller’s legislation and, if enacted into law, expect its provisions to be used.