By Jonah Czerwinski
I recently asked David Shulkin — the man responsible for running the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system — what his biggest challenge is in achieving the changes underway for the Veterans Health Administration. He didn’t need a second to think about it. “Hiring more doctors,” he said.
Last week he brought it up again, telling USA Today, “I need help. I need the right leaders to come in and to take these positions of responsibility on behalf of the country…. I know I have openings and I don’t have the applicants.”
I worked for the VA for a number of years. It was some of the most fulfilling work of my career. But the current political climate makes it difficult to attract enough health professionals and seasoned managers to meet the needs of today’s veterans.
Donald Trump may not realize it, but when he condemns the VA health care system as “a total disaster, nothing short of a disaster,” he sends the signal that becoming a VA doctor or hospital CEO is a bad career move. Or at best a precarious one: “I’d fire everybody,” is how Mr. Trump explained his approach to improving VA.
Firing “everybody” isn’t a viable management move for the 300,000-person organization. Not only would the 7 million veterans relying on VA health care be affected, he would leave about 100,000 veterans unemployed since over a third of VA’s employees are veterans.
But to the Trump campaign, VA employees — people who have dedicated their lives to serving veterans — are incompetent or untrustworthy. This is both inaccurate and intolerable. He is talking about people I know and respect — folks who give up larger salaries and the perks of private sector employment because they want to help veterans.
I know better than most that VA is far from a perfect organization. To tackle some of the challenges we faced, I became the first director of the Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation (VACI). As an organization, we looked to private sector innovators and front-line VA employees for new ways of expanding access, increasing quality, lowering costs, and improving veteran satisfaction.
VACI worked every day to innovate in service of veterans. One of our first projects created a prototype for the paperless claims processor the VA uses today. On the healthcare side, we worked on veteran-facing projects, like telehealth, to deliver care to veterans where and when they need it. These civil servants — the very same people Trump’s campaign seeks to demonize — view their work for the VA as a patriotic duty, much like their time in uniform.
Taking The Apprentice “You’re fired” strategy on the road to Washington would further weaken VA instead of fix it. Taxpayers will not see this immediately, but veterans would — especially those most vulnerable who rely on the VA for everything from healthcare to job training.
Hillary Clinton has proven her understanding of the compact we have made with veterans. Her plan to modernize VA holds managers accountable for poorly performing employees. And it also creates a health care system for veterans that will deliver high quality care that’s convenient, appropriate, and available without delay. Her plan expands telehealth services, partners with private health care providers, and creates a culture of innovation. It’s the kind of VA that can attract the talented staff–especially the doctors–that we need.
Hillary Clinton is committed to serve those Americans who have committed themselves to public service: both the veterans and those who care for them. It’s one more reason why we need her in the Oval Office.
Jonah J. Czerwinski was Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and founding director of the VA Center for Innovation, which he led from 2010 through 2013.