• August 27, 2014

More than rhetoric needed to solve VA’s problems

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2014 4:30 am

From all the indignant rhetoric and finger-pointing in Washington these days, you would think the current Department of Veterans Affairs scandal erupted overnight.

Understandably, recent allegations that delayed medical care led to as many as 40 patient deaths at the Phoenix VA hospital are extremely troubling.

Equally unsettling are new reports that patient appointment schedules at several facilities nationwide were manipulated to meet VA guidelines and earn employees bonuses for on-time performance.

But the bureaucratic mess that has rocked the overburdened veterans health care system and led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation isn’t new. Some of the issues that led to the current uproar — the VA’s massive backlog of claims and long waits for patient appointments — have been the subject of several congressional hearings in the past decade.

Against the backdrop of the latest shocking revelations, two of our area’s Washington lawmakers acknowledged they were informed of significant problems at Temple’s VA hospital more than two years ago.

Both U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, confirmed they received a January 2012 report from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs that outlined several problems with the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple.

The two-year-old report cited issues with inappropriate scheduling procedures for patients, as well as prolonged wait times leading to delays in cancer diagnostic tests and unclean medical equipment. A Temple VA spokeswoman claims the problems there were addressed quickly.

For his part, Carter claims it was his inquiry to the VA that led to the generation of the 2012 report, noting constituents brought several issues to his attention. However, his office never produced a news release on the matter, ostensibly because the constituents didn’t authorize sharing of their information. Since the inspector general’s report is a public document, available on the VA website, the privacy argument seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Cornyn’s office claims to have contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly after the report was released, in an attempt to get more information on the backlogs, but didn’t elaborate.

Even more puzzling than the lawmakers’ silence on the 2012 report is the fact that the Temple facility received recognition from the VA both before and after the report was issued. The 2012 award packet noted the issue of incorrectly reported desired appointments was corrected through training of “front line employees” in October 2011.

The fact that the inspector general found serious flaws in the Temple VA’s operations while at the same time the department cited the hospital for excellence may illustrate the magnitude of the massive bureaucracy’s oversight issues.

Also, the question remains as to whether the scheduling issue was resolved.

A representative from a Fort Hood federal employees union said Friday a delegation that included several Temple VA workers traveled to Washington in February of 2012, 2013 and again this year to complain that the manipulation of patient scheduling was still going on at the hospital. Each time they visited, they met with Carter’s deputy chief of staff, he said.

These claims must be investigated thoroughly. If Carter was shown documented evidence that the scheduling problem in Temple persists, it is disingenuous for him to allege a coverup by the administration on the current VA scandal.

Obviously, lawmakers of both parties have every reason to be outraged at the latest revelations. But they should be driven by concern for our nation’s veterans, not by the desire to score political points.

Moving forward, the administration, Congress and interim VA secretary must resolve to do what it takes to streamline the VA’s bureaucracy, remove ineffective administrators and provide the necessary resources to bring timely, high-quality care to our nation’s deserving veterans.

It’s time to move past the rhetoric and get something done.

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