Public Policy

Time to reform the Veterans Administration
By Amanda Baker

Among the top priorities of the newly elected Congress ought to be to investigate the effectiveness of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) in dealing with the disability claims of our veterans. This federal agency must be made accountable to our deserving veterans. If necessary, salaries of federal bureaucrats ought to be curtailed and the sums diverted for greater and better care for our veterans.

Ron Ouellett, a 67-year-old disabled veteran from the Vietnam era, typifies the frustration many veterans experience with the VA. In an exclusive interview, he explains how he has been denied benefits he thinks he deserves and has been battling a pampered, bureaucratic system that largely doles out hefty salaries to employees while failing to address all the needs of service members who have made many sacrifices on behalf of the nation.

Mr. Ouellett has been retired for 11 years after being medically discharged, lives with his wife in the Villages retirement community in Florida and is dedicated to his 17-year-old granddaughter. When he discusses the VA, his voice hardens and he is angry. He remembers dates and events as crisply as if they had happened yesterday.

“I could write a book on what’s going on (at the VA), and now that I’m a disabled veteran, I’ve got to fight with the VA for everything that I’ve got, or everything that I’m trying to obtain,” Mr. Ouellett said.

His story dates back to July 20, 1961, a little more than a month after he graduated from high school, when he went into the Navy as a radioman. He completed basic training in Great Lakes, Ill., and went to radio school for six months in Bainbridge, Md., in the fall of 1962. After “flunking out” of submarine school in Connecticut, Mr. Ouellett was sent to Honolulu, Hawaii to be on the admiral’s communication staff. He was honorably discharged on July 9, 1965, and married his first wife on the same day a year later. The VA granted him 10 percent disability when he was discharged.

Mr. Ouellett was employed by the VA from 1990 to 1999 as a police officer, and was in the news business simultaneously, working for two local radio stations and a weekly newspaper. He also obtained a degree in criminal justice with the help of the VA. After being medically discharged, he retired and moved to Florida.

When he was in the Pacific, Mr. Ouellett contracted a skin fungus that stayed dormant for close to 40 years. The VA has supplied him with medication for the condition, but, according to him, has not done anything further to help him. He has been fighting for more aid since 2007.

“This (skin condition) has come back with a vengeance. ... When I’m sleeping, I scratch, and when I scratch, I bleed. The bleeding ... totally destroys my undergarments ... my pillowcases ... my bed linens, and some outer garments,” he said. “In 2007, I was made aware that I was entitled to a clothing allowance, so I applied for it. Well, I was denied. So I got angry, and I wrote a couple of letters to the hospital director, basically calling him everything under the sun, and I said, ‘Why don’t you take it out of your $30-40,000 bonus, what’s $600 to you, it’s no big deal.’ And I have been denied ever since.”

Since 2007, Mr. Ouellett has filed two notices of disagreement, and he’s waiting to get a hearing with the Veteran’s Benefits Administration.

“I’m going up there with my stained underwear, when and if I get a hearing. And I’m going to dump it in front of the hearing examiner and going to say, “Now call me a liar,” he said.

Mr. Ouellett also has a pending claim with the VA for hearing loss. Two doctors, one of whom did surgery on his ears, have examined him. Both of their medical opinions were that his hearing loss started when he was in the military. While the VA has supplied him with “a dozen hearing aids,” Mr. Ouellett said, they are still denying him further treatment.

“Bottom line is, I’m still deaf. I’ve lost hearing because of what occurred when I was in the military. And then I have another claim for PTSD. And you (have) got to wait three to four years (for that claim to be filled). I’m going to be dead and buried by the time these people get off their fannies,” Mr. Ouellett said. “I want the VA to pay me before I croak.”

Mr. Ouellett was very adamant to point out that his problem with the VA isn’t the medical care, which he called “second to none.” At one point in time, it was VA medical care that saved his life when he had double bypass surgery after September 11. His problem is with the VA bureaucrats.

“I don’t want to paint them with a broad brush, but the (bureaucrats) that I’ve dealt with are wimps, are sissies. They hide behind their fancy titles and their empty suits and stuffed shirts. That’s what they do,” he said. “I’ve been treated in six VA hospitals from Boston to Miami, and they all have the same problem: they operate short-staffed. Skeleton staffs, but yet, life goes on.”

Mr. Ouellett said that VA hospital directors average a salary between $165 to 185,000 a year. Then, if they do their job well and save the VA money, they are given a $30 to 40,000 bonus at the end of the year.

“Those medical professionals are really dedicated people. If you want to give bonuses, give them to the medical professionals, instead of the bureaucrats. Give them more money in their salaries. They deserve it,” he said.

It is virtually impossible to get a hold of a VA bureaucrat, Mr. Ouellett said. He has written to more than one VA secretary, called and left messages, and has still not received replies to his question. When Reflections contacted the VA for comment, we also received a dismissive writen response:"Please ask the veteran to call our VA regional office at 1-800-827-1000 to find out about the status of his claim. The patient representative at the VA medical center can assist him with his clinical needs. Questions about a Director's claim has no bearing on a veteran's claim."

This typifies Mr. Ouellet's frustrations. “The bottom line is, as a taxpayer ... as a disabled veteran and as a retired employee, I don’t think it’s right for these federal employees at the top levels of pay to wind up getting $30-40,000 dollar ... bonuses,” Mr. Ouellett said. “Basically, they sit there at the top, they hide in their offices (and) they’re surrounded by a bevy of secretaries. When I was a police officer at the VA ... I protected these bureaucrats from being assaulted by disgruntled, crazy, angry veterans. I protected these people. Now that I’m retired and on the other side of the fence, I can understand why some of these veterans get angry.”

Mr. Ouellett emphasized that, as a taxpayer and a veteran, the VA exists to serve him, not the other way around. He does not want to jump through hoops when he calls the VA office; he wants someone to pick up the phone and address his concerns. He wants the people who pull the most weight in the VA – the medical teams, specifically – to be recognized, and for that recognition to be reflected in their paychecks.

“Who wins the battles? It’s not the generals. It’s the privates and the sergeants. Who runs the VA? It’s not the administrators, or the assistants to the assistant. It’s the clerks, the nurses, the doctors (and) the therapists. Those are the people who make the VA work. And those are the ones who are paid the least,” Mr. Ouellett said.

According to Mr. Ouellett, VA bureaucrats are not doing enough work to warrant their outrageous salaries, plus the extra bonuses they get on top of that. His appeals and letters and medical claims have gone unnoticed and been denied, but he’s “not going to take no for an answer.”

“I’m arguing that (someone) should go in there and remind them that…there’s new SOP (standard operating procedures). And you’re going to be taken off your high horses and now you’re going to start serving the veterans,” he said.

Disabled veterans like Mr. Ouellett should feel that the nation is on their side, rather than that they are fighting an uphill battle against a cold bureaucracy. Congress must act to render the VA cost-effective, efficient and more accountable to our deserving service members.

-Amanda Baker is an outreach coordinator at the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.