VHA remains a shameful mess

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is in Charleston.

Two years ago a crisis of patient neglect at the Veterans Health Administration became public with reports that a number of veterans had died before being seen by VHA doctors, followed by the exposure of systematic lying by hospital administrators about how long veterans had to wait for appointments.

The White House found “significant and chronic system failures” and a “corrosive culture” of cover-up inside the VA. President Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert A. McDonald, to reform the agency. And Congress passed legislation to increase staff and funding for those hospitals and gave Secretary McDonald enhanced powers to discipline and replace administrators.

But many of the problems exposed two years ago persist today.

The Government Accountability Office’s recent study of scheduling at six VHA hospitals, including the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, found continued problems with providing timely medical care to veterans.

Pointing to a lack of clear guidance and uniform practices, the GAO found that VHA staffers continue to misrepresent how long veterans must wait before seeing a doctor when they seek an appointment. The GAO found that data had been manipulated at three unspecified hospitals to provide false information on wait times.

The GAO report follows the public release in April of VA inspector general reports on 40 VHA facilities over the past two years that found staff regularly “zeroed out” the time veterans had to wait before being seen by a doctor and that in some instances supervisors told them to do so.

The VA responded to the inspector general reports by saying it has instituted reforms to prevent such misrepresentation. But the latest GAO report confirms that the reporting system is still full of errors and will likely be so until “a comprehensive scheduling policy is finalized, disseminated, and consistently followed by schedulers.”

VHA medical administrators said they received confusing directions from headquarters about changes to scheduling policies that had been “ineffective and may be contributing to continued scheduling errors,” the GAO reported.

VA officials, however, contend that the agency has “built a strong system of checks and balances to detect scheduling errors and potential manipulation.”

Clearly that’s not the case, and further demonstrates the inadequacy of Secretary McDonald’s promised reforms.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged “that the problems that the VA has encountered for more than a decade now have been deeply entrenched.”

But he claimed that the administration is making “important progress in ensuring that veterans are getting the benefits that they have so richly earned.”

“That said,” he added, “work remains to be done.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, agreed that the VA still needs work, but disagreed about the extent of progress Mr. McDonald claims to have achieved.

“This report proves what we’ve long known: wait-time manipulation continues at VA and the department’s wait-time rhetoric doesn’t match up with the reality of veterans’ experiences,” Rep. Miller said in comments to USA Today. “But given the fact that VA has successfully fired just four people for wait-time manipulation while letting the bulk of those behind its nationwide delays-in-care scandal off with no discipline or weak slaps on the wrist, I am not at all surprised these problems persist.”

Granted, federal employee job protection rights have made it hard for Secretary McDonald to reshape the agency.

But the persistence of a basic failure to provide timely service to veterans is a clear sign that competent administration is still needed for this troubled agency.