Back in 2014 this blog was one of the first to report on the troubled Veterans Health Administration facility in Phoenix where 40 veterans died while languishing on an eternal wait list to see a doctor. Since then, we've maintained a set of blog posts and articles that have related updates and status changes at the VA, as well as other issues that are affecting our veterans. A subsequent investigation uncovered a system-wide inability to offer vets timely medical treatment. 57,436 newly enrolled veterans faced a minimum 90-day wait for medical care, and 63, 869 veterans who had enrolled over the past decade never received any appointment at all. In addition, a corrupt administrative culture was falsifying wait-time records in order to protect management performance bonuses and punishing whistle-blowers who tried to bring the wait-time mess to the public’s attention.
When the scope of the corruption and the dismal state of medical care our veterans were receiving became apparent, Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs was forced to resign and Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 that established multi-billion-dollar contracts with two companies to develop private-care networks and book veterans’ appointments. It also provided billions more to reorganize the VA itself.
So how is the VA doing in 2016? Have the wait times been improved? Has the corruption been rooted out and are accurate records being kept? Are whistle-blowers protected? Are our veterans now getting the medical care they need?
We took a look at the current research that is being conducted into the VA’s current performance and, frankly, the news is not good.
- In June 2016, the VA’s own internal report found that the number of patients who have waited more than a month to see a doctor exceeded a half a million since the beginning of 2016. No improvement was seen in any month so for this year.
- In April 2016, following a Freedom of Information Act request from USA Today, a report revealed that VA employees in 19 states were still “zeroing out” wait times for veterans, concealing the true length of delays. What’s more, VA supervisors themselves instructed schedulers to fabricate wait times at medical facilities in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Vermont. The GAO says that the improvement reports produced by the VA chronically under-report veteran’s appointment delays and produce bogus scheduling data. While VA records list average wait times at eight days, the GAO say actual delays range from 21 to 70 days.
- The GAO goes on to say that the VA remains plagued by “ambiguous policies, inconsistent processes, inadequate oversight and accountability. “We have seen, at best, little progress by the VA in addressing these issues.”
- Just this past June, all three of the Phoenix VA executives who replaced the disgraced Phoenix VA Director, Sharon Helman, were fired themselves for “negligent performance of duties and failure to provide effective oversight.”
- The GAO reported in June that the new VA’s Choice Program that was set up in 2014 to alleviate wait times has only “aggravated wait times and frustrated veterans due to confusing eligibility requirements and conflicting processes for coordinating with private health care providers.”
The finding of these official ongoing investigations are appalling. We wondered what individuals involved in the VA’s scandal and the attempted reorganization felt about the progress being made. Here’s what two of them said:
- Dr. Lisa Nee, a former cardiologist at the Chicago VA hospital, became a whistle-blower and endured harassment and threats until she resigned to fight for change. Now she believes the culture at the VA is beyond redemption. “The culture really is feudalistic. There is no accountability. It really is ‘Lord of the Flies’ on steroids…A below-average product with no accountability.”
- Alissa McCurley, deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., worked on the VA in Chicago for two years. She says, “There seems to be no bottom to the problems. We uncover something, start to look into it, and that problem leads to a new one, and a new one. The numbers are still being manipulated.” McCurley gives the VA an “F” for transparency and leadership.