The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released an eye-opening internal audit last week that revealed serious issues for veterans in need of medical care. A flurry of criticism has surrounded the department for months, resulting in the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the speedy passage of both House and Senate bills to remedy the situation. Here are some points to be aware of as the VA prepares for some much-needed overhauling:
- Breaking down the numbers: In 2012, VA doctors in Phoenix, AZ, repeatedly tried to call attention to their overburdened facilities and the negligent scheduling their patients were dealing with. A nationwide audit of 731 VA hospitals and clinics was finally completed and released earlier this month by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). It revealed that nearly 60,000 veterans have had to wait at least 90 days for initial appointments with a physician, and some 64,000 veterans who sought appointments in the last 10 years have simply never been seen. It has also been confirmed that at least 35 veterans have died while waiting for appointments, but it is still unclear whether these deaths were caused by a lack of VA treatment or other extenuating circumstances.
- The scandal: This month’s OIG report exposed widespread dishonesty amongst VA scheduling operations. The majority of the audited facilities were found to have intentionally altered data in order to improve perceived performance and comply with the department-wide goal of seeing patients within 14 days. Some facilities even created secret lists of patients to gloss over how long they’d been waiting for an appointment.
- Why the cover-up? The 14-day goal for seeing veterans was meant to motivate the VA to process patients more efficiently. However, a lack of medical professionals with time available for appointments was cited as the main reason for failing to meet this two-week target. Scheduling issues have plagued the VA health care system for years—with reports of serious delays going back to 2005. Rather than admitting defeat, many VA hospital officials resorted to falsifying their records in order to safeguard their annual performance bonuses.
- An overwhelming response: Both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation last week to help rectify the VA’s dire situation. Many are hopeful that timely compromise amongst lawmakers will soon put a final version of the bill on President Obama’s desk. The FBI has also announced that it will be aiding the Justice Department in its investigation into VA facilities to see if any criminal charges should be filed. An extensive overhaul of the VA’s administration is also underway.
- Big plans ahead: Efforts to resolve the VA’s fundamental flaws are going to have a significant impact on taxpayers and the federal government. The Senate’s recent VA bill would allocate an additional $35 billion to veteran healthcare over the next three years. In order to accommodate the increasing demand for VA services, at least $1 billion would be set aside for new facilities and $500 million would be used to hire additional medical staff. Most importantly, for the next two years both Congressional bills would compel the VA to pay for private care for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a facility or who are unable to receive timely treatment. These measures may also make it possible for veterans to seek additional care that was not previously covered by the VA.
Government officials appear to be highly motivated to resolve these issues, but lawmaking and policy reform are notoriously time-consuming endeavors (especially those that involve billions of dollars of federal and taxpayer money). It is still uncertain which provisions of the proposed legislation will ultimately come to fruition, but be sure to stay posted on these important developments affecting VA programs.