WALLA WALLA — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki answered questions and responded to concerns about scheduling of medical appointments and services within the VA care system today in front of the Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a longtime warrior for veterans, is a senior member of the committee.
The topic is a hot issue in the nation on the heels of allegations of a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA Medical Center that resulted in the deaths of 40 veterans.
Shinseki told panel members this morning he is angry and saddened by allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths in Phoenix. “Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many,” he said in prepared testimony. “We can, and we must do better.”
Murray agreed, pointing out there have been numerous reports over the last several years illustrating problems with VA care that still exist.
“Clearly this problem has gone on for far too long,” she said. “It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system. Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing. But we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.
“What we need from you now,” she continued, “is decisive action to: restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these systemwide, years long problems.”
Murray said when the findings of the current investigation are added to the list of previous findings, she expects Shinseki and his department to take them very seriously, taking appropriate steps to implement recommendations.
“And there is no reason for the department to wait until the Phoenix report comes back before acting on the larger problem. The (Government Accountability Office) reported on VA’s failures with wait times at least as far back as the year 2000.
“Last Congress we did a great deal of work around wait times, particularly for mental health care,” Murray said. “The Inspector General looked at these problems in 2005, 2007, and again in 2012. Each time they found schedulers around the country were not following VA policy. They also found in 2012 that VA has no reliable or accurate way of knowing if they are providing timely access to mental health care.”
What is needed now is decisive action, Murray added. “To restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these systemwide, years long problems.”
Shinseki vowed to hold employees accountable for any misconduct and has said he welcomes a White House review of his beleaguered department after allegations the Phoenix hospital maintained a secret waiting list to hide lengthy delays for sick veterans.
Other panelists pointed out veterans around the county are given appointments for clinics that lack providers, or “ghost clinics.” Many spoke of appointment schedulers who “cook the books” or manipulate waiting lists, “gaming the system” and double booking patients.
“If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable — to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees,” Shinseki said.
No review will fix the problems if directors and staff are afraid to speak the truth, Murray said. “How will you get medical directors to tell you when they have problems?”
The chairman of the Senate committee said there were “serious problems” at the VA but lawmakers must avoid a rush to judgment.
“I don’t want to see the VA system undermined,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told The Associated Press. “I want to see it improved. I want these problems addressed.
“If people are cooking the books, running second books, that is wrong. That’s illegal and we have to deal with it,” Sanders said, adding he also was troubled by reports that some veterans have to wait up to six months to see a doctor.
The VA system is the largest health-care system in the country, serving nearly 9 million veterans a year at 152 hospitals and more than 1,500 other sites nationwide.
Surveys show patients are mostly satisfied with their care. But with such a huge system, “there are going to be problems,” Sanders said.