VA Still in Disarray Four Years after Veterans Wait-List Death Scandal
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Four years have passed since a scandal erupted in 2014 at the Department of Veterans Affairs. At least 40 veterans died waiting for medical appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care system in Arizona.
Once the dust settled, the public learned of a secret waiting list at the Phoenix facility. Veterans who had waited well beyond the 14-day maximum to see a physician were put on the list.
In order not to lose their bonuses, VA managers at the Phoenix VA facility set up the elaborate scheme to hide the fact that 1,400 to 1,600 veterans had waited many months to see a doctor. However, the wait times shown on documents sent to VA headquarters in Washington did not exceed the mandated 14-day limit.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress were outraged by the mistreatment of our nation’s veterans.
But has anything really changed for the better? If anything, the VA problems have only spread to other facilities.
Problems Continue for the Troubled VA
At the beginning of March 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General released a report, which found that the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center “suffered a series of systemic and programmatic failures to consistently deliver timely and quality patient care.”
The IG report noted that waste, fraud and abuse of government resources had been going on for years.
The main healthcare facility for veterans in the nation’s capital also failed to provide a consistently clean area for medical supplies. The hospital also failed to properly oversee the purchase of $92 million in supplies and equipment to ensure they were necessary and cost-effective. The report also cited numerous staffing issues.
VA Inspector General Michael Missal faulted “failed leadership at multiple levels within VA that put patients and assets…at unnecessary risk.”
His report followed an interim report in April 2017. Missal released that report because he said he lacked confidence in the Veterans Health Administration’s ability to deal with the many problems that had been widely known for some time.
The Office of the Undersecretary for Health accepted the report and its 40 recommendations. But will the report end up in the garbage pail along with previous recommendations?
In Wake of Scandal, Congress Passes VA Reform Package
When the VA scandal became public in 2014, Congress quickly passed a $16.3 billion VA reform package, calling it the first step in overhauling the veterans’ health care system.
The Veterans’ Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), provided changes to veterans’ access to quality care. It also provided additional funding for doctors and nurses at VA facilities, as well as funding for new VA facilities.
The law allows veterans who can’t get timely appointments with VA doctors to seek outside care from private medical doctors by using their Veterans Choice Cards.
Veterans Organization Leader Says Not Enough Is Being Done
After passage of the new law, Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, warned, “The passage of this bill through the Senate today is not a silver bullet, but rather it is only a Band-Aid, and one that will soon fall off.”
A year after passage of the bill, the VA Inspector General announced that more than 307,000 veterans likely died awaiting care at various VA facilities across the country.
Anderson Cooper Questions Why Senate Took a Long Time to Take Action
CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper moderated a Democratic Party primary debate on October 13, 2015. He asked Senator Sanders why it took 18 Inspector General reports before he and his Senate colleagues took action.
“As a result of that legislation, we went further in than any time in recent history in improving health care for the men and women of this country who put their lives on the line,” Sanders replied.
Strangely, Sanders did not mention the IG report on the death of over 307,000 veterans because they could not get proper, timely care. Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump campaigned on supporting veterans and restoring their trust in the VA.
Trump’s Appointment of Jackson Does Not Alleviate VA Concerns
Since the VA scandal broke in 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs has gone through four secretaries. The latest was David Shulkin, who was fired by President Trump last month.
Trump has named Admiral Ronny Jackson, his personal physician and a career naval officer, as the next VA secretary. Jackson served tours of duty as a physician in Iraq. He was also the personal medical doctor for Presidents Bush and Obama.
But Jackson’s nomination has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, who point to his lack of any management experience.
“I look forward to meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) praised Shulkin for serving “honorably” and said he looked forward “to meeting Admiral Jackson soon and seeing if he is up to the job.”
Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a veteran who was severely wounded in Iraq and served as an Assistant VA Secretary, criticized Trump for his choice to replace Shulkin. She said the President is “choosing chaos over consistent leadership. Donald Trump is hurting veterans around the country.”
Nevertheless Duckworth said she would carefully review Dr. Jackson’s qualifications to determine whether he has the best interests of our veterans at heart.
Why Has VA’s Budget Increased without Creating More Effective Services?
It’s time for Congress and the President to answer why the VA’s annual budget has increased from about $95 billion in 2009 to an estimated $200 billion in 2018. Yet, the VA still has massive problems.
How many IG reports do we need before real action is taken? Is it a money issue or something far deeper?