Presumed President-elect Joseph R. Biden is considering naming a post-9/11 military veteran to take the lead at the Department of Veterans Affairs after two decades of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and while the agency contends with a host of challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic and a rising toll of suicides in the ranks.
Iraq War veterans Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat, and former Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, are among those on the short lists for the VA job in Mr. Biden’s Cabinet. They would mark a passing of the torch for a challenged bureaucracy that employs more than 400,000 people and oversees an annual budget of more than $240 billion.
The new generation of veterans has needs that the agency has never addressed on such a scale, such as environmental toxins, the harmful effects of military waste “burn pits,” new causes and forms of traumatic brain injury, and the nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction that has not spared the military. The agency also has struggled with leadership gaps, staff shortfalls and poor organizational performance.
Throw in the threat and resource demands that the coronavirus poses to aging veterans and their families, and the VA faces a major management challenge, the Biden team says. The VA reported a monthly record of more than 1,000 patient deaths from COVID-19 in November at department medical centers, and analysts fear the December numbers will be worse.
“The integration of a new generation of veterans into the VA system has added a substantial number of veterans eligible for health care and other benefits as overall demand for services has surged,” the Biden campaign said this summer. “Too often, the VA’s performance in terms of access, outcomes, cost and accountability is mixed.”
Ms. Duckworth is a former National Guard Black Hawk pilot who became a double amputee when her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an Iraqi insurgent. Mr. Murphy, the first veteran of the Iraq War elected to the House, was a U.S. Army lawyer in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Ms. Duckworth’s chances are said to be clouded by Mr. Biden’s professed reluctance to nominate sitting senators at a time when the chamber is closely divided.
Joe Chenelly, the national executive director for the military advocacy group AMVETS, said a post-9/11 pick for secretary of veterans affairs would be able to grasp the evolving challenges and needs of veterans.
“I know a lot of people who have a disdain for Washington who are really qualified people, great leaders and great thinkers,” Mr. Chenelly said. “This is a generation that’s really coming into its own now.”
He said Mr. Murphy seems to have an inside track on the job. Others mentioned for the post include former Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, and Robert McDonald, a former CEO of Procter & Gamble who held the VA position during the Obama administration.
Mr. Murphy was heavily involved in the Biden campaign in the crucial state of Pennsylvania and was “among the best if not ‘the’ best congressmen for veterans,” said Mr. Chenelly, who spent more than seven years in the Marine Corps and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Chenelly questions whether Mr. Murphy has the management experience to run such a large and historically unwieldy department. “The VA is absolutely massive. It’s hard to find people who are qualified,” Mr. Chenelly said.
“There’s probably no perfect candidate out there,” he said. “They all seem to have the right mindset about growing the VA.”
In a statement to The Washington Times, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said last week that it “fully expects” the Department of Veterans Affairs to renew the agency’s commitment to transparency with former military members and their families.
“Our veterans demand this — and quite frankly deserve this — type of leadership at their VA as we move into 2021 and beyond,” said Terrence L. Hayes, the VFW’s national director of communications.
In a September interview with the American Legion magazine, former Vice President Biden said he would commit to providing high quality care for veterans enrolled in the VA system and strike a balance between the VA and community care.
“I will expand VA eHealth and telemedicine to provide rural veterans access to the best providers,” Mr. Biden said. “I will provide the VA with the flexibility and tools to hire and retain top medical talent and invest in creating training opportunities to ensure a pipeline of needed health care professionals.”
Meg Kabat, a clinical social worker and former national director of the VA’s caregiver support program, is leading Mr. Biden’s transition team at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Biden campaign said the incoming administration has a plan to keep the “sacred obligation” to America’s military veterans. It said President Trump “neither understands nor respects the idea of ‘duty, honor, country’ that inspires our brave military members to serve and imbues our veterans with pride.”
The handoff of power already has created some tension, with Mr. Trump not formally conceding the election. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, and Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, wrote a letter to outgoing VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last week complaining that the department was trying to nail down policies and protect some executives before the Biden administration takes office next month.
“We are writing … to direct you to cease any further efforts to rush policies or hiring decisions, during your final weeks as secretary, which merit more scrutiny and should be left to the incoming administration,” the letter said.
The VA denied it was trying to “burrow” personnel and policies into place, the publication Government Executive reported.
Some changes are already on the docket.
In addition to addressing basic issues such as finding the right balance of VA care and purchased care and establishing better coordination between the VA and other agencies such as the Department of Defense, Mr. Biden said, he would support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, which includes allowing the VA to research its use to treat veteran-specific health care needs, they said.
In the interview with the American Legion, Mr. Biden said the VA’s decision to suspend in-person disability exams because of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a tremendous backlog of cases that must be eliminated.
“VA must develop and release a plan to safely resume compensation and pension exams,” he said. “This may include opening contract sites where their sole purpose is well-person care in areas where it is now safe to do so. It may also require plans to conduct exams, or portions of the exam, virtually.”
It took decades for the U.S. government to acknowledge that Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War, was harmful to American military troops who were exposed to it. Mr. Chenelly with AMVETS said it’s crucial that the next VA chief avoid similar mistakes with the unique health concerns of a new generation of veterans, such as the effects from burn pits that were used to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We need them to acknowledge what these veterans are suffering and dying from,” he said. “We need someone in there who can understand that and be willing to move forward with it.”
• Mike Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.
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