The VA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Weekend

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   The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suffered a string of body blows over the weekend and into Monday, with the successive release of an Associated Press analysis finding severe shortcomings in VA hospitals’ ability to cope with a surging number of female veterans’ health care needs on Sunday, followed by a new report on Monday by independent federal investigator Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) concluding that VA officials ignored or otherwise overlooked whistleblowers’ allegations of unclean medical equipment, substandard care for the elderly, and illegal narcotic prescriptions at multiple VA facilities. That’s on top of the agency’s admission last Friday that 300 VA executives – or 65 percent of all senior executives at Veterans Affairs -- received bonuses totaling $2.7 million last year, even while the department faced withering criticism for its massive claims backlog and extensive physical and mental health treatment delays that led to many veterans’ otherwise preventable deaths.

   Some of the most notable findings from the AP analysis of VA hospitals’ women’s health care services include the fact that 25 percent of all facilities lack a full-time staff gynecologist, and that 15 percent of rural community veterans’ clinics have no designated women’s health care provider. Furthermore, female veterans face appointment wait times exceeding ninety days at higher rates than males and do not receive timely mammogram results as mandated by the Veterans Affairs Department.

   Lerner’s Office of Special Counsel report warned that veterans, irrespective of their gender, were also at risk over the agency’s inability to harness whistleblower complaints into practice changes at VA facilities. “This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans,” wrote Lerner in a letter to President Barack Obama. “As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk.”

   Both the AP report and Lerner’s investigation prompted quick responses from department officials and lawmakers. Dr. Patricia Hayes of the VA told the AP that the VA would continue adapting to the steep rise in young, female veterans returning from winding conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially as a larger number of women continue to enlist. The OSC allegations forced a comment from the VA’s Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has taken over since former Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last month."

   “I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously,” said Gibson in a statement.

   According to Politico, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee chairwoman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) also criticized the report’s findings. “Whistleblowers are critical to our efforts to guard against waste and misconduct in government—and in this case, against the severe compromise of patient care,” said McCaskill. “I’m outraged, not only by what these whistleblowers found, but by indications that those findings were ignored or minimized by VA management, perpetuating systemic problems while veterans suffered.”

   Veterans did receive some positive news earlier this month when the House of Representatives passed the Veterans Access to Care Act, which would almost triple veteran health care spending over three years and allow veterans to receive their treatments in the private marketplace – a move that has been strongly endorsed by doctors’ groups including the American Medical Association (AMA).

By: Sy Mukherjee