Six months ago, the news cycle was flooded with talk of how the federal Department of Veterans Affairs’ health system was, as they say, a hot mess.
Allegations of vets dying while on lengthy, secret waiting lists for needed health care stoked the fires of national outrage and requisite alarm from members of Congress. (Yes, many of these same members charged with congressional oversight were somehow blind to the system failing our veterans in the first place.)
Leap forward to Veterans Day. While newly minted VA Secretary Robert McDonald was promoting the largest restructuring of the department’s history, there was barely a peep from Congress – or anyone else for that matter.
It’s likely that most VA watchers are waiting to see what the changes – both real and proposed – will mean for the 300,000-employee agency. But continue to watch, they should. And closely, because neither Congress nor the Obama administration can afford to take their eyes off the ball again.
There have been more than 13 years of conflicts since 9/11, wars that have poured more than 2 million new veterans into the VA health system. Meanwhile, 1 million Vietnam veterans are hitting the age when health problems arise. Add to that World War II and Korean War soldiers reaching their 80s and 90s, and you have a system where demand for medical services is soaring.
So McDonald, a former Proctor & Gamble CEO who took over the VA in July, proposes reorganizing the sprawling department to make it easier for veterans to gain access to health care, as well as other benefits. His“MyVA” initiative seeks to focus the VA on customer service long term; meanwhile, clean house and cut the backlog of veterans waiting for appointments in the short term.
The VA’s mission is to care for veterans, he said in a statement announcing the changes,“so we must become more focused on veterans’ needs.”
That issue was never in dispute, however. Last spring, the VA came under intense scrutiny after a whisteblower reported that dozens of veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, and that appointment records were manipulated to hide the delays.
A report by the department’s inspector general said workers falsified waitlists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care and bonuses for managers who appeared to be meeting on-time goals.
The IG’s office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but said officials could not“conclusively assert” that the delays caused the deaths.
McDonald is determined, however, to identify the people responsible. There are about 1,000 employees who could be fired – including about 40 connected directly to the wait-time scandal, he said. In October, four senior executives were either fired or forced to resign. And Sharon Helman, director of the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System, was fired last week.
That’s good, says Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla. The $16.5 billion, three-year measure passed by Congress this summer to overhaul the VA called for the secretary to be able to more quickly terminate employees who were not performing adequately, she said.
“But this can’t be just a reshuffling of chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” she said.“There are still problems with the overall system dealing with processing a large number of benefits and claims cases in a timely fashion.”
A key measure of whether McDonald’s new MyVA system will work is how it handles still emerging needs such as suicide prevention, a growing problem as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In order to regain the public’s trust that it is taking proper care of the nation’s roughly 22 million veterans, the VA must reduce the backlogs and speed up care. To that end, $10 billion will go to provide certain patients – who either live more than 40 miles from a veterans facility or who face a wait of more than 30 days for an appointment – government-paid care from a private doctor through use of a new Veterans Choice card. Another $5 billion is for hiring up to 1,000 health professionals and leasing space for an additional 27 VA clinics.
All signs currently point to needed changes at the VA. But it means little if Congress doesn’t take its oversight function more seriously going forward. Our veterans deserve no less.