Illinois Senate Race Provides a Study in Contrasts Over VA Leadership

Illinois’ Senator Mark Kirk knows he has a fight on his hands. Nearly every news outlet has Johnson on the top of their “Senate seats most likely to flip” list. The Hill says “he faces the steepest climb going into the general election,” the Washington Post says he “is Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbent this cycle,” and National Journal argues “there’s little question that the first-term senator’s seat is the most likely to change hands next year.”

Part of the reason is math. President Obama won the reliably blue state by 16 points in the most recent election. But part of the reason is the quality of Kirk’s opponent: Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth is an Iraq War veteran who lost both of her legs when her helicopter was shot down, a two-time congresswoman, and a fundraising powerhouse – her compelling personal story coupled with her political deftness make for an intimidating mix.

But recently, the seemingly invincible Duckworth has faced some tough questions stemming from her time leading the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The scandal-plagued VA has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last two years. Long wait times led to dozens of veterans dying while waiting months, or even years, for care and VA officials were caught manipulating patient lists in order to hide real wait times in order to preserve their bonuses.

“A corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the Department that are seriously impacting morale and by extension, the timeliness of health care,” read a White House report of the VA’s “corrosive culture.” “The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.”

Sadly, ignoring, or worse, retaliating against whistle-blowers are some of the allegations that keep cropping up around Rep. Duckworth.

Two medical workers at the Illinois VA hospital have said that Duckworth largely ignored their repeated reports that veterans were being mistreated at the VA.

“I never felt that [Duckworth] wanted to hear exactly what was going on,” Germaine Clarno said in a recent radio appearance. “I really thought going to Tammy Duckworth, that she would be the one who would stand up and say this has got to stop.”

The Washington Free Beacon has more:

Clarno, a Democrat and union leader, said she met with Duckworth three times between 2013 and 2014 to report on “secret waiting lists” at the hospital, which hid the fact that patients w`t an easy thing for me to say, but it’s reality,” said Clarno, a social worker who has worked at the Hines VA for six years and is also the president of AFGE Local 781.

Duckworth also faces charges of retaliation against two employees at the Illinois VA who said they received poor evaluations and were targets of harassment after complaining about the performance of the facility’s acting director. One of the employees claims Duckworth told her to “do your job and keep your mouth shut.” The newly amended suit also accuses Duckworth, who led the VA agency during the tenure of disgraced Gov. Rod Blogojevich, of violating the state’s ethics act. The case is currently set to go to trial in August after an Illinois judge rejected a call by the Illinois attorney general’s office to dismiss the case.

In what can only be described as a tragedy, many of the problems that plagued the VA system during Duckworth’s leadership in Illinois continue on a national scale. But Sen. Kirk has been working hard to address the lingering issues. The senator writes for the Chicago Sun Times:

But instead, every week my office hears the facts about VA care from whistleblowers who work at Illinois VA facilities and see our veterans harmed and ignored at the hands of corrupt VA bureaucrats. These complaints have included horrid examples of roaches being served in veterans’ food, and pervasive black mold in a facility that houses the frail and elderly. To add insult to injury, these brave whistleblowers are almost always bullied and retaliated against when they attempt to expose wrongdoing. The substandard treatment of our Illinois veterans has to stop.

Since coming to Congress, I have made it my mission to fight for my fellow veterans. Last week, the Senate passed my bipartisan appropriations bill which, for the second time under my leadership, funds the VA at record levels. At the same time, the bill protects whistleblowers who expose patient abuse, increases transparency at the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, boosts health services for female veterans — such as access to in vitro fertilization — improves screening of medical personnel, prevents the overprescription of opioids by VA doctors, and increases funding to reduce veteran homelessness rates.

There’s no doubt that Kirk still faces an uphill battle in his Senate race. But if nothing else, he can go out knowing that he did the right thing for the nation’s veterans. Can Duckworth say the same?