Veterans Can't Keep Waiting for Reform
A bipartisan commission created by Congress to investigate the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has released its findings and confirmed what we already know – the VA is deeply troubled and has been for years. The Commission on Care’s report comes just days after new developments in the agency’s latest health-care scandal, which shows exactly how far-reaching these problems are.
The latest VA failure is that nearly 25,000 veterans learned they may have waited as long as eight years to get the right diagnosis. Professionals not qualified to diagnose traumatic brain injuries – a common injury for many veterans – had for years been examining veterans for the affliction. When a local news investigation uncovered the story last summer, it took the VA nearly a year to even begin notifying the affected veterans that they had been potentially misdiagnosed.
But this was only the latest in a long string of failures that have plagued the agency and jeopardized veterans’ health.
After the Phoenix scandal first broke in 2014 and Americans learned about the secret wait lists and chronic wait times that caused harm to veterans, we were promised there would be solutions. Instead, new scandalous reports continue to emerge as veterans still face long waits for care. Veterans in my home state of Georgia have come to know this all too well.
As of last month, wait times for nearly 25 percent of all pending appointments in and around Dublin, GA were longer than 30 days. And in Augusta, the wait times for over 12 percent of all pending appointments were longer than 30 days.
The waits for appointments are part of a continuing national trend. Just last month, there were 76,000 more appointments with wait times exceeding 30 days than there were last June. And, as of June, the number of appointments with wait times exceeding 120 days has also risen – up 30 percent from the same period last year.
At the same time, waitlist manipulation remains an issue at VA facilities. A recent analysis discovered that employees from 40 VA facilities across the nation regularly “zeroed out” patient wait times in order to make appointment waits look much shorter than they actually were. Sure enough, Georgia veterans were not spared from the troubles. Just last month, we learned that 648 patients in Dublin, GA had their consults improperly closed without ever being seen by a provider.
The VA benefits offices, which oversee the claims of the nearly 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care system, have also seen their fair share of issues.
A recent new investigation found rampant and widespread privacy violations at VA centers across the country, with the VA's Sunshine Healthcare Network – which includes southern Georgia – topping the list with at least 370 incidents over the past five years.
There have also been instances of carelessness from VA employees that have left veterans waiting for their benefits. While veterans supply their personal information to the VA in order to get their claims processed, workers from a number of facilities across the country have incorrectly placed into shred bins those sensitive documents with claims information.
All the while, the VA has attempted to downplay the significance of these troubles. VA Secretary Robert McDonald even compared waits for VA health care to lines at Disney, arguing that since the theme park doesn’t use wait times to measure performance, neither should the VA.
But we know the truth – wait times are an effective measure of performance. And the diminishing quality of care and service from the VA is hurting veterans.
No matter what state we live in, we deserve to get better care and treatment from the VA. Whether this means more accountability and better treatment at VA facilities, or greater access to care through a functioning choice program, something must be done.
Fortunately, lawmakers are already working to reform the troubled agency. One such potential solution is the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act. The proposal would do a number of things to rework the VA, but most importantly, it would empower veterans to seek out health care from both VA and private physicians.
Allowing veterans to access physicians outside of the VA system would ease the burden on VA physicians and help reduce the total number of veterans waiting for care. What’s more, this would therefore help reduce overall wait times.
The fact, is the Department of Veterans Affairs is fundamentally broken, and it too often fails to give veterans the care they deserve. The Commission on Care report confirmed as much. Now when will our elected officials do more than pay lip service to the need for reform?