As America heads into its annual Memorial Day remembrances of the men and women who have lost their lives in service of our nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs is in the midst of a controversy about its care of those who have served.
Allegations have surfaced that the VA has delayed treatment for thousands of veterans in violation of long standing scheduling rules. These delays are being blamed for complications for untreated conditions and at least 40 deaths.
The VA system has more than 1,700 hospitals and clinics that handle more than 80 million outpatient visits every year. The demand for services has increased dramatically after two wars and more than a decade of soldiers returning home in need of services, adding to the population of veterans from as far back as WWII. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were an estimated 21 million veterans still living in 2012.
The current controversy began after two whistleblowers in a Phoenix facility claimed that officials fabricated the data regarding wait times for scheduling appointments. VA rules require that appointments are to be scheduled within 14 to 30 days. If it would take longer than 90 days to schedule an appointment, the names were to be entered into an electronic waiting list to ensure that they would be prioritized when appointments became available. In Phoenix, officials kept a secret hard copy waiting list that showed 1,400-1,600 veterans were waiting months for treatment, including those which chronic conditions. They also doctored the electronic waiting list to show they were tending patients in a timely manner.
According to the allegations, at least 40 veterans died as a result of this practice.
Since the allegations have come to light, 26 facilities in 18 states are under investigation. However, records show that the VA has had scheduling issues throughout the system dating back as far as 2000. As recently as April of this year, the Government Accountability Office continued its ongoing reporting about the severe delays in VA healthcare. It pointed out to wait times of almost 6 months for follow ups and inconsistent implementation of VHA’s scheduling policy.
The current scheduling policies were established under Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has been at the head of the VA since President Obama’s first term. Shinseki ‘s tenure has been mired in controversy, including his handling of a longstanding backlog of disability claims. After an uproar over claims that were not being processed for more than four months or more, Shinseki vowed to eliminate the backlog by 2015. He estimates they are less than halfway there.
While VA advocacy groups and politicians are looking for the resignation of Shinseki, questions remain as to why the scheduling issues exist in the first place.
Some pundits are claiming that the Republican-controlled house has cut funding for veteran services. This is untrue. Under the Obama administration, funding for veterans has increased from $47.8 billion in 2009 to $63.4 billion as of this year. However, the amount approved by Congress is about $2 billion dollars less per year than the president had originally requested. It is unknown if the higher amount would have made a difference.
Most likely, the problems boil down to simple logistics.
Shinseki has increased the amount of services available to veterans, resulting in more veterans accessing care. Several VA facilities serve more than 10,000 veterans in a single geographic location. Additional funding could increase the number of physicians and specialists available, but training requirements established by the VHA for them are seen as an additional obstacle for increasing the numbers. Not to mention, doctor shortages are a nationwide problem that affects the entire healthcare system – not just veterans.
Deceptive scheduling practices aside, there are only so many patients that can be seen in a day.
As for the original Phoenix case that has brought the issue to the forefront, the Department of Justice is currently investigating. The whistleblowers came forward after learning that Phoenix officials were planning to destroy the hidden records. They were able to preserve the records and are currently being reviewed by investigators. President Obama held a press conference on Wednesday saying the White House has launched its own investigation and any misconduct would be punished.
However, the president insisted he wanted a full investigation before deciding if Shinseki should resign, believing he cares deeply about our veterans. His loyalty, however, seems to remain with our veterans. “My attitude is, for folks who have been fighting on the battlefield, they should not have to fight a bureaucracy at home to get the care that they’ve earned.”
You can sign this petition if you agree with the president that America’s veterans deserve better access to medical care.