Senior WH Official to Ron Fournier: VA Not Overhauled Because 'We Don't Do Small Stuff Well'

June 9th, 2014 10:00 PM

In a Monday National Journal column about how many Democrats are allegedly saying they have "quit" on Obama — claims I find quite hollow, given that no one asserting this has yet had the guts to go on the record — Ron Fournier quotes "a senior White House official" with a head-shaking take on the Veterans Administration scandal.

Specifically, "Questioning why the Veterans Affairs Department hadn't been overhauled months ago as promised by Obama (actually that was seven years ago, plus six other times, Ron — Ed.), a senior White House official conceded privately to me, 'We don't do the small stuff well. And the small stuff is the important stuff.'" If the VA is "small," what in the world is big? And for that matter, what have these people done well, big or small? I suspect that the rest of the press, and Fournier himself, would be absolutely livid if they became aware of such an ignorant statement made by someone in a Republican or conservative administration.


As a Washington Post editorial pointed out in late May, the VA "is the federal government's largest employer."

A Daily Beast column today by Kristen Rouse, a veteran and member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council, describes the Veterans Health Administration as "the nation’s largest integrated health system, encompassing 150 medical centers and 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Philippines, and American Samoa."

Rouse's Daily Beast column makes one of the weirdest arguments I've seen in some time.

In what comes off as a desperate attempt to deflect responsibility, Rouse blames local and state veterans' groups for being asleep at the switch:

... Meanwhile, we have designated offices in our local and state governments that are tasked with ensuring the welfare of their veterans. The question is this: Why are we not asking why local and state veterans affairs offices didn’t know what was happening to the veterans they are directly responsible for? Why are local and state officials evading responsibility here?

Successfully reintegrating veterans after they have come home requires local solutions—Washington, D.C., will never understand the particular needs of a local veterans community as well as the people on the ground. It takes local leaders and advocates to identify gaps between the needs of those veterans and the benefits and services they’re able to access, and to make those gaps known. The consequences of a breakdown in local leadership were egregiously evident at the Phoenix VA, where serious problems were covered up by administrative fraud that went unchecked until exposed by the national media.

This Phoenix case is now well-known. But less discussed is the fact that the City of Phoenix has a Military Veterans Commission that meets at least quarterly to advise the Phoenix City Council on “all matters pertaining to the affairs of military veterans residing within the City of Phoenix.” So where were those guys? Were they checking in on conditions at the hospital and surveying local veterans? Did they know this was happening? Did they bring this up to the Phoenix City Council, or Phoenix’s Congressional delegation in D.C., or to VA administrators either locally or in D.C.? It is bad enough that administrators in Washington, D.C., didn’t know what was going on in Phoenix; it’s even worse that local officials charged with veterans’ affairs had no idea what’s happening to the veterans right in front of them. And if that wasn’t enough, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services is also based in Phoenix, less than a mile from the VA medical center. They allegedly go to work every day for veterans—yet apparently had no idea what was happening right down the street from them.

I am all for accountability—but as we demand accountability for VA officials, let’s not forget the many other public officials we pay to ensure veterans at the state and local levels can access their benefits. American government works because we have overlap between federal, state, and local governments.

Three quick points. First, I suspect that many of the complaints about VA facility wait times have indeed been brought to the attention of these groups, which, as primarily advisory boards, have no power to do anything other than bring those complaints to the attention of the VA itself, which has been less than receptive to such complaints, and their congressmen and senators.

Second, if we're going to start discussing decentralization, why don't we privatize the whole thing, integrate the VA hospitals into the local communities, and give vets access to the best of care, no matter who provides it? I'd like to be wrong, but I'm guessing that Ms. Rouse's intent has more to do with distracting attention from a monumental scandal than it has to do with substantive reform. What say you, Ms. Rouse?

Third, last time I checked, "overlap" is not a good thing. When everyone's accountable, no one is really accountable, and nothing gets done.

Getting back to Fournier's column: If someone in the White House really believes that dealing with the VA is "the small stuff," we're onto something big, i.e., a big problem with priorities.

Too bad that point seems to have totally sailed over Ron Fournier's head.

Cross-posted at