ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Patient backlog and mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs are major contributors to veterans ending up homeless, according to U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-St. Augustine.
DeSantis held a news conference Monday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars off U.S. 1 in St. Augustine. He's proposing a bill that will address what he calls an accountability crisis, affecting veterans locally and across the nation.
DeSantis said the problems are affecting more than 1 million Florida veterans, including Spc. Joseph Minster, who served in Iraq during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Minster worked as a surgical tech for more than two decades, most recently at Flagler Hospital, but two months ago, he was released from his duties.
"I cannot find work because I am unemployable per the VA," Minster said. "And because of that, I am homeless, so I am living out of the back of my truck. There's a lot of guys out there who are a lot worse off than me, and they're laying on the ground. Something has to be done."
For four years, Minster has been waiting for his individual unemployability claim from Veterans Affairs.
"Every day I go to that post office box, and I open it, and I just hope that that letter's there," Minster said. "I don't feel like I've been forgotten or left behind or anything like that. I just feel like I've been passed over in certain cases or lost in the shuffle."
Millions of veterans across the country deal with similar issues. DeSantis called it a national nightmare, and he is touting legislation he says will help.
"I think the one thing that should unite everybody both in Washington and back here in kind of the normal part of the country is that we want to honor the men and women who have served and sacrificed for us," DeSantis said.
DeSantis said recently released reports are unacceptable, including claims of clerks in Colorado that they were instructed to falsify appointment records to appear as if veterans were served in a timely manner and reports of a secret waiting list at a VA medical facility in Phoenix.
DeSantis stands behind a house bill that would hold VA senior managers accountable for poor performance.
"This bill is going to give the VA secretary the tools that that individual needs to hold people accountable, rather than just shuffle some of these senior managers through the system," DeSantis said. "If you fail in one hospital, you shouldn't be moved to another. We need to get someone in there who's going to be able to do the job for the veterans."
But Veterans Affairs officials are concerned about the bill's potential effects.
"We believe (the bill) would generate serious unintended consequences that would prove counterproductive," Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said in a statement released Monday. "For example, any change that would single out VA employees for punishment or discharge could have a chilling effect on VA's ability to recruit and retain high-quality employees.
"That, in turn, could harm VA's ability to best serve veterans as well as be an effective steward for the U.S. taxpayer. In addition, we believe employees who are removed would (and should) still retain due process protections, so any actions taken by the Secretary under this legislation could lead to lengthy litigation."
DeSantis thinks the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, will be voted on in the House this month.