Weekly Columns

Two Years After Phoenix, the VA is Still Failing Veterans

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Washington, April 20, 2016 | Tiffany Haverly (202-226-8072) | comments

This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the actions the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) should take to improve newly enrolled veterans’ access to primary care. The report was completed as part of the GAO’s ongoing effort to investigate VA practices and at the request of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, a subcommittee I am proud to serve on.

GAO’s audit looked at the experience of 180 newly enrolled veterans at six VHA facilities. The audit uncovered wait times that ranged from 22 to 71 days. In several cases, the VA never followed up on these veterans’ initial scheduling requests and – at the time the report was released – 60 of the 180 veterans who were followed through the process had yet to be seen. The GAO also highlighted that the VA starts counting a veterans’ wait time on the requested appointment date, rather than the date a veteran contacts the VA to request an appointment, which further obscures accurate information on wait times.

Veterans, especially newly enrolled veterans, are facing unacceptable wait times to get into a VA clinic or hospital. Worse, some VA centers are still misrepresenting and manipulating wait times. I am disgusted by these findings. The fact that these issues persist nearly two years after the Phoenix waitlist scandal broke is a slap in the face to every veteran who has put on a uniform and honorably served this country.

To follow the report’s release, the full committee held a hearing on the GAO’s findings on Tuesday. In Tuesday’s hearing we heard from the Honorable David Shulkin, M.D., the Undersecretary for Health at the VA, Debra Draper, the Director of the Health Care Team at GAO and Larry Reinkemeyer, the Director of the Kansas City Office of Audits and Evaluations at the VA’s Office of the Inspector General.

In his testimony, Dr. Shulkin admitted to losing the trust of veterans and the nation. While I appreciate Dr. Shulkin’s clear commitment to our veterans, I was disturbed by the fact that, in his testimony, he said issues within the VA need to be addressed systematically rather than piecemeal. While I agree with this assessment, the GAO report stated that – with regard to scheduling – the VHA’s “piecemeal approach in implementing these policies may not be fully effective in providing schedulers with the comprehensive guidance they need to consistently adhere to scheduling policies.” When you have the Undersecretary for Health advocating for systematic changes in the way the VA does business and the GAO highlighting a piecemeal approach to implementing scheduling policy changes as a reason veterans are not receiving timely access to care, something is seriously wrong.

Despite the fact this is clearly a problem that has not been addressed, the VA has not held its employees accountable for these widespread failings. To date, only four people have been fired for wait time manipulation at the VA. This isn’t a hard concept: Congress has made it easier for the VA to fire these bad actors, but they haven’t. It’s hard to see how the problem will be fixed if people don’t believe they will be held accountable for their actions. There is no excuse for this gross mismanagement, and you can rest assured I will continue to press the VA to make systematic changes. The VA is undermining veterans’ confidence in its ability to accomplish its most basic duty: to serve the men and women who served our country.

One of my highest priorities in Congress is fighting for our veterans, and I encourage you to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family. 
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