The VA's Long Road Ahead

VA Hospital Richmond VA

Photo courtesy of Veterans Administration

The VA's Long Road Ahead

By Earl Perkins | published June 13, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

The Federal Government seems to finally be getting traction in its goal of addressing the Department of Veterans Affairs' scandal, with the Senate overwhelmingly passing bipartisan legislation concerning its scheduling crisis on Wednesday, according to the Washington Post.

The FBI also announced that it is opening a criminal investigation into the scandal, and no doubt will discover rampant abuse in falsifying schedules, firing whistleblowers and transferring abusers. Almost all government agencies have a chain of command similar to the military, and money, bonuses or greed have evidently been driving the system for decades.

A lengthy investigation is almost certainly right around the corner as FBI Director James B. Comey told lawmakers his agency seeks to determine whether VA hospital administrators knowingly lied about wait times for veterans so they might receive massive performance bonuses. The FBI field office in Phoenix will be leading the probe, because that's the epicenter for the worst fraud allegations that led to a nationwide scandal.

Senators Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont) and John McCain (R-Arizona) sponsored the U.S. Senate legislation which passed 93-2, sending the measure to the House, which already passed its own bills crafted to address the problems at the VA. If the final bill eventually becomes law, the VA may be allowed to outsource contracting with medical centers and shift $500 million in its budget to hire additional medical staff. The VA secretary would also receive greater power to fire or demote senior administrators who perform poorly.

A recent VA audit shows more than 57,000 veterans waited at least 90 days for their first VA appointments, with an additional 64,000 appearing to have "fallen through the cracks," according to the Associated Press. Keep in mind that these are primarily independent-minded people who don't ask for help until they really need it, so that's saying to me they get the run-around until it's so late they just die.

The House passed a stand-alone bill on Tuesday that would allow more outsourcing, along with a VA firing measure, but their bill lacks an appeal for fired or reprimanded officials. The Congressional Budget Office also announced that granting veterans greater access to private medical care could cost taxpayers about $35 billion more over the next decade, along with another $50 billion to the VA.

“One of the costs of war is taking care of the men and women who fought in those wars,” said Sanders, who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “If anyone disagrees...they shouldn’t send them off to war in the first place.”

McCain also related that additional measures could still be forthcoming. “There will be more efforts to fix this gaping wound in America’s conscience,” McCain said.

The House will now study the Senate bill, with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Florida), who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rep. Michael H. Michaud (Maine), the committee’s ranking Democrat, aiming to develop the final legislation.

Sanders said he is confident that “we can bridge the differences and send the president a bill he can sign in the very near future.” Miller agreed, saying, “I’m hopeful that both chambers of Congress can soon agree on a final package to send to the president’s desk.”

Leaders from the VA's Office of Inspector General said the probe is expanding to 69 medical facilities and the Justice Department has been contacted concerning possible criminal activity. Responding to pressure from Congress, Justice has asked the FBI for assistance.

Internal investigations by the inspector general and VA have concluded that schedulers throughout the VA system faced pressure from supervisors to make it appear that veterans were receiving care within 14 days.

In reality, veterans at many hospitals throughout the nation were waiting months to see doctors, even as hospital administrators’ bonuses and promotions were evidently tied to their ability to reach the 14-day target.

Sloan Gibson, the VA's interim secretary, said this week the 14-day goal was unrealistic, and suggested it may have spurred fraudulent record-keeping. Gibson is scrapping the goal, pledging a series of short-term reforms to ensure that veterans stuck on waiting lists for months would receive immediate care.

One of the worst cases has emerged at VA facilities in Central Alabama (Montgomery-West Campus and Tuskegee-East Campus), according to a report on website Yellowhammer.

John Morykwas, a board certified medical laboratory professional and former employee at CAVHCS said the truth is that several employees involved in the scandal were demoted—or moved laterally—but not fired.

"It was wishful thinking that VA employees were fired, but that is a lie," he said, claiming CAVHCS Director James Talton was untruthful when he said employees were fired for falsifying records to cover up long wait times. A source at VA confirmed the employees involved were still employed by CAVHCS.

Also, in a press release over the weekend, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Alabama) was troubled by facts surrounding what Talton told her, noting he "said that when he discovered the suspicious discrepancies within his system, he alerted the Inspector General and then terminated employees responsible.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

The VA After General Shinseki; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; June 12, 2014.

The VA Hospitals: It’s Worse Than We Thought; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 10, 2014.