VA spin vs. health care reality

Verterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald holds a chart as he testifies about pending Veteran Affairs health care budget shortfall and system shutdown at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

During his July 21 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh, President Obama had kind things to say about his embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, claiming success in combatting problems in the VA health administration. Members of the VFW applauded politely, but congressional hearings and press reports suggest that the applause was misplaced.

Here is how the White House transcript of the president’s speech records the occasion:

“I brought in Bob McDonald, and I went down to the Phoenix VA to see and hear for myself. I know Bob gave you an update earlier. The VA reached out to vets across the country to get them off those wait lists and in for care. Bob is bringing energetic new leadership. He is working to hold people accountable and make sure the whistleblowers are protected instead of punished.”

Indeed, Secretary McDonald claimed to have held individuals responsible for abuses at VA hospitals by firing hundreds of employees including “60 people who manipulated wait times.” But The New York Times reported that VA documents provided to Congress showed that the department had punished only eight of its 280,000 employees for manipulating and covering up wait times, of which one was fired and one was pending termination.

Later documents show that in all only six senior VA health officials have been terminated or forced to retire. Meanwhile, the VA has initiated criminal charges against just one person, a mid-level employee at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., who is alleged to have improperly closed out 2,700 applications for outside care. The employee says he was acting on order from superiors at a hospital notorious for long wait times that reportedly resulted in patient deaths.

Meanwhile, wait times for appointments are reported to be 50 percent higher now than when the scandal erupted a year ago. And congressional hearings have documented continued abuse of whistleblowers throughout the VA health care system.

But Secretary McDonald has blamed Congress, not the agency he heads, for cost overruns. The VA claims that a minuscule budget reduction of less than one percent will force it to close hospitals and reduce service.

That contention, however, reeks of passing the buck. Meanwhile, our veterans still wait for the timely care they deserve.