Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, appears on 'The Daily Show' with John Stewart in this image made from video. ()
Congress has made it virtually impossible to cut the time it takes for veterans to get the services they need from the Veterans Affairs Department, said former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The problem is not money, rather Congress has micromanaged veterans affairs to an extent that any change requires “literally an act of Congress,” Gates said during an appearance Wednesday on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
“We would try pilot programs where we would try to expedite disability evaluations and things like that … to be able to get them done in 100 or 150 days rather than a year or two years or three years or more, but we couldn’t expand that, once we showed it would work, without a change in the law, and that proved almost insurmountable,” Gates said.
However, another problem is “turf” issues between the Defense Department and VA, Gates said in an extended interview posted on The Daily Show’s website. Gates recalled when he and the VA secretary, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, tried to merge the two departments’ computer systems.
“At the end of the day, Shinseki and I simply could not get the technical people to abandon their turf consciousness and their insistence on owning their own system and not combining the two,” Gates said.
While the two departments are doing a better job sharing electronic medical records, Gates lamented that he was unable to get the Defense Department and VA to work more closely. He also took issue with the disability evaluation system.
“You don’t get a benefit unless you’re 30 percent disabled,” Gates said. “So what’s the difference between 28 percent disabled and 30 percent disabled — or 32 percent disabled? I said: ‘This is baloney. If it’s a wounded warrior, let’s err on the side of the soldier, let’s come back and re-evaluate in five years and if that rating isn’t justified, we can change it.’ Both President Bush and President Obama supported that, but again, it required a change in the law, and we just didn’t get it done.”
Host Jon Stewart asked Gates why the U.S. government cannot take the same bold action to reduce the backlog in veterans claims as he did when Military Times and The Washington Post exposed that wounded service members were living in substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007.
“One of the reasons things changed almost immediately was I fired the commander at that hospital, the surgeon general of the Army and secretary of the Army,” Gates said, to applause from the audience. “That got people’s attention. Part of the problem in Washington is the unwillingness to hold individuals accountable for performance.”