VA scandal still a national outrage

This April 28, 2014 file photo show the Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Recent reports of continued long patient backlogs and repeated retaliation by VA hospital directors against whistleblowers indicate that the widely publicized Veterans Affairs reforms instituted last year by the Obama administration have failed to change a deeply entrenched, self-protective culture.

Until some powerful administrators in the VA hospital system are fired, or otherwise taken to task for their misconduct, including retaliation against whistleblowers, there appears to be little hope of righting the agency.

Last summer, President Barack Obama appointed Robert A. McDonald, a corporation executive, as Veterans Affairs secretary to replace former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who resigned following revelations of multiple abuses in the agency’s hospitals.

An investigation by the White House reported “significant and chronic system failures” and a “corrosive culture” inside the Veterans Health Administration.

The president also signed legislation giving the new secretary of Veterans Affairs unprecedented powers to fire subordinates who failed to support reform.

The scandal began a year ago when the VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., was exposed for denying timely service to a number of veterans who subsequently died. The disclosure of long waiting lists and falsified records at a number of VA facilities soon followed. Meanwhile, Congress received multiple reports of improper training and procedures and chronic understaffing at VA hospitals around the country.

Making matters worse, the VA has run up over $1 billion in hospital construction cost overruns over the past several years, reports The Washington Post.

The reforms instituted by Congress and Secretary McDonald were supposed to reduce backlogs and change the repressive culture of the VA hospital system.

But a recent investigation by The Associated Press found that the number of patients facing long waits has not declined. Nearly 900,000 appointments in the past eight months fell outside the VA’s goal of seeing patients within a month.

In contrast, Charleston’s Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is meeting its goals for seeing patients. VA hospitals in the Midlands and the Upstate have been less successful, according to a Post and Courier report this month.

Meanwhile, a recent congressional hearing cited problems with reprisals against whistleblowers, apparently without any censure from the VA secretary.

A physician at the Los Angeles VA hospital and a therapist from the Phoenix facility described how they were punished from bringing their concerns about the treatment of patients to Congress.

In the case of the VA doctor, the government admitted in court documents that he had been punished for whistleblowing.

Such illegal reprisals are common, according to VA employees interviewed by The Washington Post.

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that protects federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing, reports that since Secretary McDonald took office last summer it has received 111 complaints from VA hospital employees about retaliation for whistleblowing. The OSC expects 40 percent of its cases to come from the VA this year.

Until Secretary McDonald cracks down, he is not likely to get anywhere with his well-publicized changes.

At this point, they hardly deserve to be characterized as reforms.