As lawmakers continue the call for answers into the troubled Veterans Affairs health care system, including South Carolina's Sen. Tim Scott, the White House released findings Friday describing "significant and chronic system failures," substantially verifying problems raised by whistleblowers and internal and congressional investigators.
A summary of the review, ordered by President Barack Obama and conducted by deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors, says the Veterans Health Administration must be restructured and that a "corrosive culture" has hurt morale and affected the timeliness of health care. The review also found that a 14-day standard for scheduling veterans' medical appointments is unrealistic and has been susceptible to manipulation.
Some conclusions from deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors' summary of findings on the VA's health care system:
- The VA acts with little transparency or accountability and many recommendations to improve care are slowly implemented or ignored. Concerns raised by the public, monitors or even VA leadership are viewed by those responsible for VA's health care delivery as "exaggerated, unimportant, or 'will pass.'"
- The VA's lack of resources is widespread in the health care field as a whole and in the federal government. But the VA has been unable to connect its budget needs to specific outcomes.
-The VA needs to better prepare for changes in the demographic profile of veterans, including more female veterans, a surge in mental health needs and a growing number of older veterans.
The White House released a summary of the review following Obama's meeting Friday with Nabors and Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.
Earlier Friday, Scott heaped criticism on the Obama administration and VA for not responding to his two-week-old request for information about the existence of secret waiting lists at South Carolina VA facilities. The lack of response prompted the senator to ask hospital directors themselves.
"I am extremely disappointed that two weeks after my original request I have not received answers from the Obama Administration on this basic request for information critical to helping our veterans," Scott, R-S.C., said in a written statement. "Their lack of response is simply unacceptable."
The White House review offers a series of recommendations, including a need for more doctors, nurses and trained administrative staff. Those recommendations are likely to face skepticism among some congressional Republicans who have blamed the VA's problems on mismanagement, not lack of resources.
"We know that unacceptable, systemic problems and cultural issues within our health system prevent veterans from receiving timely care," Gibson said in a statement. "We can and must solve these problems as we work to earn back the trust of veterans."
In a letter dated June 12, Scott asked Gibson seven questions about VA facilities in South Carolina, including questions related to the existence of secret waiting lists, backlogs, delays in care that may have resulted in patient deaths and the total dollar amount spent on bonuses and awards for senior staff.
Linda West, deputy director for media relations at the VA, confirmed Friday morning that the department received Scott's letter and will provide an official response to him as soon as possible.
Scott asked for a response to his questions by June 20 and now has turned directly to VA hospital administrators in Charleston and Columbia and to statewide outpatient clinics for answers.
"I hope that each facility will be more forthcoming and transparent about their processes, wait times and the scheduling challenges they are facing," Scott said.
Since reports surfaced of treatment delays and of patients dying while on waiting lists, the VA has been the subject of internal, independent and congressional investigations. The VA has confirmed that dozens of veterans died while awaiting appointments at VA facilities in the Phoenix area, although officials say it's unclear whether the delays were the cause of the deaths.
One VA audit found that 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. More than 56,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, the report said, and an additional 46,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.
This week, the independent Office of Special Counsel concluded there was "a troubling pattern of deficient patient care" at the Veterans Affairs that VA officials downplayed. Among the findings were canceled appointments with no follow up, contaminated drinking water and improper handling of surgical equipment.
In an interview with The Post and Courier in early June, Scott Isaacks, interim director of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, said no secret waiting lists exist at the local hospital. He also said further review determined a delay in care did not contribute to a patient's death, as an April VA report suggested.
The audit, released June 9, shows new patients wait an average of 45 days to schedule appointments with a primary care doctor at the VA hospital in Charleston and 77 days at Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
On Friday, Isaacks said the hospital is currently in contact with Scott's office.
"The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center has had a track record of providing high quality care in a timely manner for the more than 58,000 veteran patients that we currently serve, while striving to continuously improve each day," he said. "We would certainly welcome Sen. Scott to the Charleston VA and have been in communication with his office to schedule a time to meet with him."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.