In mid-October, just two weeks before Election Day, a CBS News poll revealed the stark reality of Americans' increasingly low opinion of the federal government. The Veterans Affairs Department was the lowest-rated agency on the list, with only 30 percent of Americans saying they believe VA does an "excellent" or "good" job.
Why should VA rate so low in Americans' estimation? In large part, it's due to the fact that VA has been embroiled in a series of highly publicized scandals that have exposed how poorly the department serves veterans.
Based on the complaints I've heard from the veterans community in my work around the country with the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, I'm convinced that simmering anger at the VA's scandals was one critical factor — among many — in Tuesday's election results.
But it's not just scandals and poor performance that have undermined confidence in the VA. It's the department's handling of those scandals, and the unwillingness to hold those responsible accountable for their failures, that is so damning.
For example: What happens to a senior VA executive who pressures lower-level employees to falsify scheduling records, retaliates against honest employees who raise questions and pockets six-figure bonuses while veterans can't get doctors' appointments and even die while waiting for care?
If you think that person gets fired or faces criminal charges, you're mistaken. The correct answer is this: They get a six-month paid vacation.
That's the case with Sharon Helman, director of the VA's Phoenix Medical Center, who was placed on administrative leave last spring after a whistleblower VA doctor revealed how Phoenix officials had falsified patient wait records. The doctor estimated that as many as 40 Phoenix-area veterans may have died while awaiting care.
CVA launched an online clock in August to track Helman's continued employment. At this writing, it's closing in on 200 days and counting. Why pick on a bureaucrat like Helman?
Because she's Exhibit A in the case that VA needs to build a culture of accountability centered on getting results for veterans.
This summer, it appeared things were getting ready to change at VA. Congress had passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which included strong accountability measures empowering the VA secretary to fire poorly performing managers. This reform package was signed into law with the enthusiastic support of the veterans' community.
How is that reform push faring? So far, not so good. Three months after the new VA reform law took effect, the sum total of VA executives who have lost their jobs stands at ... one.
In late October, VA finally got around to terminating James Talton, director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. Under Talton's leadership, the Central Alabama system was marked by dysfunction and scandal; his termination came after a two-month paid administrative leave.
It's a positive step that Talton has been removed from VA employment, but veterans can be forgiven for wondering why the pace of change at the department is so glacially slow.
After three months with only minimal action, and while Helman in Phoenix and other poor performers around the nation remain on the VA payroll, it's critical that veterans, advocacy groups, Congress and the media maintain a sharp focus on VA's implementation of the new accountability provisions.
Tuesday's election results, which reflect in part a broad-based unhappiness with the management of the executive branch under its current leadership, should serve as a wakeup call to President Obama and his federal agencies. The American people are weary of incompetence, corruption and a lack of results, and they expect better from Washington. The current administration and Congress have their work cut out for them if they hope to regain the confidence of the American people.
As the president and his allies consider how to rebuild and restore trust in the final two years of his term, they should start with a strong focus on fixing VA by ousting the executives who drove the department into a ditch — and once again placing veterans at the center of the VA mission.
Pete Hegseth is CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. An infantry officer in the Army National Guard, he has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.