Joni Ernst: VA director 'needs to go'

Senator cites long waits for care in renewing call for ouster of Robert McDonald

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MASON CITY — U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, repeated her call for the firing of the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs during a town-hall meeting Friday in Mason City.

Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, said Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, is not getting the job done.

She had called for his ouster in May after McDonald compared veterans waiting for VA help to people waiting in line at Disneyland.

“I have been critical of the VA for a long time,” she said, speaking to an audience of about 40 at the Historic Park Inn Hotel.

“We have many wonderful doctors in the VA system, but their hands are tied by the system.”

The VA’s own statistics show veterans have to wait an average of 36 days before they can see a VA doctor, Ernst said.

“That’s far too long,” she said.

“Secretary McDonald needs to go. We need someone who will come in and shake up the system. I can’t fire McDonald. Only the president can,” she said.

The freshman senator has sponsored a bill that would allow veterans to get a statement of non-availability of a VA doctor and then go to a provider of their choice and receive the treatment they need. The bill is tied up in the Veterans Affairs Committee.

She said she has authored five bills that reached President Barack Obama’s desk; three were signed, two were vetoed.

The bills that were signed regarded:

• Breaking tradition and allowing ashes of women who served in World War II to be in Arlington National Cemetery.

• Having a post office in Cedar Rapids named in honor of an Iowa servicemen who was killed in Afghanistan.

• Enacting the Women Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, authorizing studies and treatment programs to try to prevent the suicides. Ernst said 21 veterans commit suicide every day. Women veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of civilian women.

One of her vetoed proposals sought to limit the amount of money former presidents receive in federal compensation. Ernst said most former presidents now are wealthy and do not need assistance their predecessors once did. Her proposal would have cut back federal subsidies to any former president making $400,000 or more.

The other vetoed bill had to do with objections to language in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Waters of the U.S.” regulation that she considers too restrictive.

Ernst said two things she has learned in Washington is quick changes are rare, and government often issues guidelines rather than rules because guidelines don’t require congressional approval.

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