Can the Veterans Benefits Administration Be Saved — From Itself?

By Al Poteet

Be it a Republican or Democrat Administration, historically the Department of Veterans Affairs has tried to always be responsible in helping America’s Veterans.

But something changed in the last few years.

It is a tragic tale of mismanagement, incompetence and cover-ups that has violated the VA’s sacred motto:

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and has orphan.”

The media has been inexorably awash for years exposing the ongoing horror show and systemic failure of leadership at many VA Medical Centers nationwide.

The scandalous behavior and unsavory cover-ups have crept through the food chain to Washington DC and landed with a resounding thud on 10th Floor desks at VA Central Office.

Notorious data manipulation, falsification of appointment records, and lengthy delays in the provision of life-saving health care has led to unnecessary pain, suffering, and death of veterans who honorably served our country.

Why has this happened you ask? 

The answer is neither complex nor difficult for most thinking adults to discern…it is easier to cheat than do the heavy lifting!

Heck, why not?

All the other directors are doing it and if I don’t, my facility will look bad and I will be identified as a inept, ineffective manager.

And that is exactly what too many directors did by choosing the easy route to “fix” the stats and bonuses at the expense of the very veterans they were mandated to serve.

Regrettably, too many stats were bogus and counterfeit.

Inexcusably, veterans were left to suffer and some undoetedly died as the result of rogue director’s reprehensible behavior.

Why has this been allowed to happen? 

The VA Central Office “top knockers” have a litany of lame excuses but no creditable explanation for the distorted stats rolled out by scurrilous VA managers whose actions effectively allowed veterans to suffer, some in intractable pain.

These veterans relied on the VA for help that in too many cases, never materialized.

Reports from whistleblowers and the VA Office of Inspector General continue to illuminate the scores of obstacles veterans face when accessing the provision of high-quality, timely health care.

Since the past too often is tragically prologue to the future, simply changing the top VA leadership will change nothing.

As the old political appointees are ushered out of 810 Vermont Avenue concurrent with Inauguration Day 2017, it will require a root and cut policy within the VA itself to achieve accountability.

Shamefully, a horde of VA bad-actors persist in putting their own careers and bonuses ahead of the well-being of our nation’s veterans.

Unless the new Trump/Pence VA leaders relentlessly roots out these abject ne’er-do-wells, too many of the “burrowed in” apparatchiks will loiter in critical policy and decision-making billets. 

Regrettably, the not so slow-motion failure of the Veterans Health Administration in both the field and Washington, DC continues unabated with a dash of persistent scandals.

It is a pernicious systemic problem for both The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA).

It is a tragic truth that a plethora of onerous scandals that plagues the VA Health Administration can also be found at the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The Benefits Administration has repeatedly proven by word and deed that the organization is adrift, rudderless, and failing miserably.

Unfortunately, many of the most disreputable VBA managers have deeply burrowed into its bloated bureaucracy.

Affirmative change can only commence when new leadership cuts the unethical and dishonest managers out of the herd.  

Recently, while VHA has dealt with richly-deserved scrutiny by the press and congressional committees, VBA furtively skulked behind the scenes avoiding media investigation thereby also evading public examination.

Tragically for veterans in need, VBA is hiding behind the recent debilitating scandals facing the VHA’s healthcare operation.

VBA is emotionally and morally bankrupt side-stepping demonstrable issues such as favoritism, scandalous cronyism, and unabashed incompetence.

Painting with a broad brush is not the focus because there are many conscientious VBA directors and staff that do their very best every day to overcome the bureaucratic inertia and nonsensical poppycock that emanates from DC.

VBA field directors have no autonomy, are micromanaged by VA Central Office in DC, told what and how to do things, and then held accountable when things don’t work out.

Just take a look at the VBA Monday Morning Workload Report from a decade ago and then compare that to today’s indecipherable psychobabble that is purportedly accurate data.

A decade ago the performance numbers of veterans helped was as accurate as possible.

Now  VBA has become exceptionally adept at subdividing data points to statically demonstrate how much they have improved.

This report resembles hieroglyphic “happy talk” more than an honest reflection of workload status, backlogs, and deliverables. 

Today’s  Benefits Administration’s Monday Morning Report is actually a joke although a joke without a punchline.

The inherent misdirection of the Monday Morning Report by DC managers is cleverly designed to confuse and mislead all who attempt to make any sense of it.

The report purposefully disguises the truth behind a smokescreen of numbers that, taken out of context, and serve no useful purpose other than gleeful obfuscation.

In this VBA, it is impossible to accurately hold directors and VA Regional Offices responsible for poor performance.

Chronically underachieving stations are “bailed out” by DC supervisors by moving work around the system lest the whole organization appear to ineffective and defective.

How can any benefit system survive if poor performers are not identified, rehabilitated, or fired?

Where is the accountability when senior managers can quickly shift work around and consequently skew the data to suit the desired outcome.

The challenge to identify a broken system in crisis is not abstract.

Hard evidence shows all Americans VBA’s systemic leadership failures.

Case after case has been  identified by VA whistleblowers, the Veterans Affairs Committees, media, my Senior Level personal observations, and the VA Office of Inspector General:

~VBA staff changes claims folder dates to make their work appear more timely

~VA’s answer to “doctoring dates” on claims folders — it wasn’t a deliberate action

~Staff cherry-pick easier claims to reduce the backlog stats quickly while old cases get older

~Regional offices accused of hiding incoming mail and shredding claims folders

~Incoming mail, some from veterans with information about their pending claims, has been  routinely stacked in boxes for months with no action at some stations

~System-wide failure to discipline senior management wrongdoing

~Thousands of veterans mistakenly declared dead had their benefits terminated were actually were alive and well — in response, VA insists their accuracy rate is 99.83 percent

~VBA is notorious for data manipulation and stonewalling — the bureaucratic shuffle

-VBA “spoliation of evidence” has been documented

~VBA continues to game the data system

~VBA continues to kick the can down the road engaging in “willful blindness” against veteran claims.

-VBA “comp and pen” physicals contracted out to a private sector firm QTC have been demonstrated to not be in contract compliance for a twenty day turn around — three times that of the Congressional and legal requirement.

VA’s Benefits delivery organization epitomizes the proverbial house of cards standing in a stiff breeze.

And of course, the all time, scandalous topper is the fiasco with two senior VBA officials who were evidently “first amongst equals.”

This is a tale of deceit, corruption, and blatant cronyism.

It’s scope is breath-taking and exceeds the usual deception, ineptitude, and incompetence exhibited by VBA’s leaders in Washington, DC.

For those of us who know the protagonists in this mythological saga, none were surprised by the arrogance and disdain top VBA leadership consistently displayed for integrity and honesty.

Their belief appernetly is that the rules for top management are different than the rest of us…rules are evidently for the little people, not the cartel bigwigs.

It is time to drain this particular swamp and bring back a true sense of integrity and morality based on competence.

For those who are not familiar with the scandal surrounding these two VBA officials, one was a very senior DC executive and the other a highly placed field director. Both VBA leaders wanted new positions in locations of their choosing.

Unfortunately, the positions they coveted were encumbered by competent directors.

They initiated a scheme to pressure and force subordinate directors under their management control to relocate to other field offices.

Did I mention these two senior managers sweetened the deal with bonuses for the forced dislocation of two competent directors?

After the targeted directors no longer occupied their positions, the principal characters in this melodrama requested transfers to the newly vacated director positions…no competition, no fairness, no adherence to the Merit Protection System.

Adding insult to injury, their new positions were less complicated requiring less experience and yet both “saved salary” in their new Senior Executive Service jobs.

The kicker was $400,000 in unnecessary relocation payments taxpayers forked over for these two executives for job openings they wanted and forced the vacancies to occur.

Don’t take my word for this storyline…it can be easily found on the VA’s Inspector General’s website. 

The VAOIG investigation revealed that the two directors who concocted this scheme “gamed the system” by pressuring two subordinate directors to relocate to other less desirable Regional Offices so they could in turn be appointed to the newly vacated positions.

The IG referred criminal complaints in this matter!

These two VBA “senior leaders” unconditionally abused their positions of trust and authority thereby abdicating any moral authority to manage and lead government employees who are desperate for real leadership.

Well, the plot was uncovered and these so-called “VBA leaders” as well as the Undersecretary for Benefits, Gen. Allison Hickey (USAF-Ret) were subpoenaed to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Undersecretary Hickey would have been a devastating witness since she knew about the scam that was foisted on the taxpayers because she approved both transfers for her subordinates.

The VA’s attitude—nothing to see here so move along folks…

Gen. Hickey sensed which way the wind was blowing and immediately resigned.

She skipped the hearing and refused to provide testimony about the scandal. 

VA Secretary McDonald accepted Ms. Hickey’s resignation with regret.


In my judgement, he should make an example out of any VA employee, manager, or leader who violates the trust accorded them as veterans advocates. 

VA top leadership has stated that you can’t fire your way to excellence—well you sure as heck can’t get there when some VA senior staff have larceny in their heart or an unwillingness to make the tough decisions!

The two culprits who launched this travesty appeared, in what can only be termed, dramatic stagecraft at a House Veterans Affairs Hearing.

Both repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment Right against self-incrimination.

They did what?

You heard correctly…they invoked their rights against self-incrimination!

Obviously they and their lawyers knew they had something to hide and without Ms. Hickey’s testimony, they had a good chance to escape employment termination.

Consequently, they were summarily dismissed from the hearing by the Chairman.

Both of our not so heroic characters received minor punishment by being demoted and reassigned to lesser jobs in the VBA system.

In an unbelievable reversal of fortune, both of these “bad actors” were reinstated by a judge because VA was incapable or unwilling to appropriately discipline other senior executives involved in this appalling episode.

It is abundantly clear that the missing link at VA’s Benefits Administration is unfettered, scandalous mismanagement practices and a lack of serious leadership.

Evidently, the status quo is alive and well at VA with two sets of rules — one for the senior leaders and another for their subordinates.

The Trump Administration has a once in a lifetime opportunity to drain the swamp at VA starting with the Benefits Administration.

The bureaucratic ineptitude and chronic incompetence so outrageously and unapologetically displayed by senior officials in this scandal is unseemly, patently deplorable, and outrageous.

It is well past time that VBA was energized with competent leadership that is accountable and focused on providing accurate, honest, and timely adjudication of veterans’ benefits.

Before adding much needed additional funds accountability must come first.

It is time to appoint VBA leaders that know the organization; know where the politicos have burrowed in; have an appreciation for the hard-working employees who are willing to do the heavy lifting; and, make the hard decisions to change VBA’s present course.

If not, VBA should not be saved from itself and should be replaced with a non-governmental contractor that can do the job.


Mr. Poteet is a former Army gunship pilot with two deployments to the Republic of Vietnam; an unapologetic veterans advocate formerly with the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Capitol Hill; VA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs; Director of three VA Regional Offices; a VA Medical Center Director; Executive Director of the President’s Task Force To Improve Health Care Delivery For Our Nation’s Veterans; Life Member of the VFW; member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s Association; NRA member; and, appointed member of the Texas Veterans Commission Advisory Board, Fund For Veterans’ Assistance.

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5 responses to “Can the Veterans Benefits Administration Be Saved — From Itself?”

  1. Alexander Havas says:

    Someone who can effect change, please listen to Al Poteet. He is on target.

    I retired from VA almost 20 years ago and was proud to have been associated with a lot of good people in the system, including Al. Now, after the last several years, I am reluctant to acknowledge my VA background to anyone. The organization has become an insult to veterans and a travesty for any of the honest, hard-working people who remain in the system. A clean sweep is needed.

    It’s an opportune time to bring back honesty and integrity, rather than offer political lip service. For a start, take action prompted by such oversight groups as the IG, and make some courageous decisions for a change. In other words, have the guts to fire people, and prosecute when warranted. Identify the incompetent, and stop rewarding them.

  2. Jack Garrison says:

    Everything in here is right on the money! One thing is left out, though, and that is that the VA started downhill when the Administration became a Department in the late 1980s. That action opened the doors to political appointees who do not have veterans first in their thinking!

  3. Tom Wagner says:

    I totally agree with Mr. Poteet! VBA Leadership has lost the meaning and the drive and what it means to “SERVE THOSE WHO SERVED!”
    As a retired VBA employee, I would volunteer to serve on a “Task Force” that would reevaluate the existing process and CLEAN HOUSE! So sad of what VBA has become!

  4. Tom Wagner says:

    I agree with Mr. Poteet. VBA has forgotten what it means to “SERVE THOSE WHO SERVED!” It is not the dedicated and committed leadership that was in place when I worked in VBA. As a retired VBA employee, I would volunteer to serve on a “TASK FORCE” that would re-evaluate the process and CLEAN HOUSE of all who disrespect and have forgotten the SACRIFICES made by Veterans and their Families!

  5. Tom Wagner says:

    I agree with Mr. Poteet. VBA Leadership has definitely lost respect for and the meaning of “SERVING THOSE WHO SERVED” Today’s VBA Leadership doesn’t have the integrity and dedication to do the RIGHT THING! As a retired VBA employee, I would volunteer to serve on a “TASK FORCE” that would evaluate, recommend improvements as well as CLEAN HOUSE, of the leadership that doesn’t honor nor appreciate the sacrifices and contributions made by veterans and their families! families!

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