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VA addresses fatal flaws at Capital Hill hearings

House VA hearing
House VA hearing
Kimberly Dvorak

Reporting from Washington DC

After a week of surprise election results and Iraq’s spiral towards collapse, allegations continue to mount inside the embattled Department of Veteran Affairs. This week both branches of Congress addressed the charges of “secret waiting lists” and “flawed leadership.”

Watch Kimberly Dvorak’s San Diego 6 News segment here

After weeks of public outrage the House passed HR 4810 or Veteran’s Access to Care Act that will give veterans on the VA waiting list an opportunity to visit a private sector doctor, throw more money at the problem and sunsets in two years.

While the VA scandal made headlines for weeks, the latest hearings revealed little new information. In fact many Congressmen left the proceedings early amid new polling that revealed the VA scandal did little to President Obama or Democrat’s popularity.

Aiding public opinion was a statement from FBI director James Comey at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing about news reports suggesting the FBI is investigating the VA claims of wrongdoing. When asked about the criminal investigation Comey gave a pithy response; "Yes. Our Phoenix office has opened an investigation."

Allegations against VA facilities include destroying records, falsifying waiting lists, systematic scheduling issues, enhancing performance bonuses and department-wide leadership failures that have left 57,000 vets waiting to see a doctor. Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) promised accountability and action.

During Thursday’s Congressional hearing, members heard from private sector healthcare providers and a common theme emerged—the VA needs to standardize their care instead of using 21 different regional networks.

Congressmen suggested the sprawling VA regional networks could provide a simple appointment reminder phone service similar to the private sector. Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke said many veterans simply forget their appointments because the scheduled doctor’s appointment may be six months down the road. The Congressman also shared during the hearing he was reminded of a doctor’s appointment!

In light of the dated old fashioned scheduling methods the VA currently uses, panelist pointed to a $9.3 billion program implemented nine months ago. The program targeted regional VA’s with a backlog by offering them the option to refer veterans to civilian medical facilities.

“The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) fought the program from day one, even accusing VA executives of deliberately causing the backlog,” Betsy McCaughey, Chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infectious Deaths said. She also pointed to an AFGE newsletter that reportedly stated, “Create a crisis and then outsource the work.”

AFGE President David Cox suggested the VA backlog, that allegedly led to 40 veterans deaths was a “chronic understaffing” problem.

Yet a 2012 audit by the Veteran Affair’s Inspector General revealed that VA hospitals lacked any means to calculate employee needs and failed to release worker productivity. According to McCaughey, to 2012 review provides a blueprint for productive changes required to care for the nation’s veterans.

Dan Collard, former hospital operator and current senior leader at the Studer Group, a health and healthcare-consulting firm agreed and said changes needed were in order.

“On standardization, the largest healthcare systems in the United States have driven improvements by harvesting and implementing best practices across their systems…This includes patient safety protocols, caregiver to patient interactions around medication instructions and a leader accountability platform,” he said.

That being said, a mantra repeated many times was change. But can the culture of 350,000 federal employees change in time to save the brave service members who fought for America’s freedom?

Current Acting Under Secretary for Health at the VA, Robert Jesse M.D. informed the Congress change was on the way. “Earlier this week, Acting Secretary (Sloan) Gibson announced a number of immediate actions to address the issues identified in our audit. Specifically, and of relevance to this hearing…Mr. Gibson ordered an immediate hiring freeze at VHA Central Office in Washington DC and all 21 Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) headquarters, except critical positions.”

He concluded; “In order to help provide timely access to quality healthcare, the Department has announced other initiatives VA will apply at the facility level, including the hiring of additional clinical and patient support staff as well as temporary staff.”

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© Kimberly Dvorak. All rights reserved. 2014.

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