VA Wait Times Still an Issue: Houston Branch Lied About Vets Canceling Appointments
Contrary to popular belief, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is not getting better. An Inspector General (IG) report released Monday revealed excessive abuse in Houston, Texas. The report found that leadership at the VA medical center instructed staff to cancel veterans' appointments and record those cancellations as requested by the veteran. It also found that records understated many wait times, revealing systemic incompetence in the organization.
"Getting an appointment at the VA is much like the lottery -- maybe you get lucky, maybe you don't," Cody McGregor, national outreach director at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) and a retired Army sniper who lives in Houston, told PJ Media in an interview Tuesday. He denounced VA staff as "manipulating the lives of people who have sacrificed everything."
The report found that "two previous scheduling advisors and a current director of two CBOCs [Community Based Outpatient Clinics] instructed staff to input clinic cancellations incorrectly as canceled by patient." The IG found that out of 373 appointments, staff incorrectly recorded 223 as canceled by the veteran.
While the staff rescheduled veterans' appointments for 219 of these 223 appointments, they did not reschedule the remaining four. Even worse, 94 of the rescheduled appointments were set beyond 30 days, with veterans waiting an average of 81 days.
Worse, this is an average of 78 days longer than shown in the VA's electronic scheduling system. And schedulers did not even use the correct clinically indicated or preferred appointment date for 54 of the appointments.
The orders came from the top, according to the IG report. "We also confirmed that a current director of two CBOCs instructed staff, as recently as February 2016, to record an appointment as canceled by patient if clinic staff at the CBOC offered to reschedule a veteran's appointment at a different CBOC situated about 17 miles away and the veteran declined the appointment."
This is not even an isolated incident either, McGregor argued. As of the end of last month, more than 480,000 veterans continue to wait more than 30 days to get an appointment with a doctor. This number has increased 140,000 since October 2014, when the VA scandal first broke.
Next Page: One veteran even has had to wait over 9 MONTHS for surgery -- and the VA is hiring more non-medical staff than doctors.
The result of these wait times has a very human face -- North Carolina veteran Wilbur Amos, who has waited over 9 months for surgery due to VA ineptitude. Staff not only delayed his appointments, they also sent him to the wrong facilities! Debilitated by three excruciating hernias, Amos said he's worried he might inadvertently twist his bowels and die from septic shock if he's not treated soon.
Nevertheless, the VA is still requesting more money and hiring more non-medical employees than doctors. The agency added 39,454 new jobs between 2012 and 2015, but only 3,591 of them were doctors. At the same time, the VA spent $454 million on lawyers, $303 million on "painting, gardening and interior decorating," and it received $5 billion from Congress as part of the 2014 reform law specifically to hire doctors, but it won't say how the money was spent.
The CVA spokesman McGregor emphasized that pouring more money into the Department of Veterans Affairs will not help the situation. It is already the second largest federal agency, behind only the Department of Defense, and has a projected budget of over $180 billion for 2017.
"The wait times for veterans continue to grow, the number of staff employed by the VA continues to grow, but the number of veterans continues to decline," McGregor explained. "Throwing more money at a problem doesn't fix it."
McGregor mentioned the forthcoming VA hospital in Aurora, Colorado, which is expected to cost $1.7 billion, about three times its original budget. The officials involved are reportedly either being cut or distancing themselves from the project. "It's just nauseating when you look at how the VA is spending money," McGregor said.
Next Page: So how can we reform the VA?
Given these problems, McGregor suggested two concrete ways to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs: giving veterans other options in healthcare and giving VA administrators the ability to fire people for not doing their jobs (yes, that is not currently an option).
"We've been advocating to start giving veterans choice -- that would make the VA compete in the private market," McGregor said. "That will shorten the wait times because veterans can go anywhere they want, and they're going to provide better care."
The CVA spokesman called it "a simple notion -- I chose to join the Army, I should be able to choose my doctor." He recalled that, when he went to school with the GI bill, "I didn't have to go to Army college, I got to go to any college I wanted to. If we apply that to veterans' healthcare, I think we can see real changes."
Nevertheless, three powerful groups are opposed to this notion, McGregor argued. He listed "left-wing ideologues who love that VA healthcare is a socialized, entirely government-controlled system; unions who love controlling the dues money of government employees, and bureaucrats addicted to the power of controlling veterans' healthcare."
But even if CVA and other groups can ensure there are multiple health options for veterans, the VA also needs the authority to fire bad employees. McGregor recalled that the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014 passed the House of Representatives, but was stopped in the Senate last year. He pointed to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, whose support from "big unions" led him to stonewall the legislation.
Even if the bill had passed the Senate, President Obama has threatened to veto it, saying it would "have a significant impact on the VA's ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector." This is a red herring, as the legislation would allow VA Secretary Robert McDonald to remove or demote an employee due to poor performance or misconduct, in which case that staff member should not be retained.
"It seems like common sense: if you cheat your employer or you cheat your customers, you should be terminated. That's not the case at the VA and it's got to change," McGregor said.
Next Page: Could the woman responsible for the original VA scandal win her job back?
He mentioned the case of Sharon Helman, former head of the VA in Phoenix, AZ, who was one of the first people fired after the VA reform law passed in 2014. Herman sued the federal government in October 2015, seeking her job back. While Loretta Lynch claimed she would defend the VA reform law against legal assaults, she told Republicans this month that she would let Helman win her case.
McGregor recalled that Helman was "placed on paid administrative leave from April 2015 through December, then terminated for receiving an illegal contribution from a lobbyist. Now, there's a big chance she actually gets her job back." This case "underscores the need for civil service reform across the federal government," the CVA spokesman declared. "There's not an ability to fire individuals who aren't doing their job."
While the VA Accountability Act would enable the department to get rid of bad employees, it would also protect whistleblowers "being targeted by their corrupt supervisors," he added.
These problems are exacerbated by the "disconnect between the VA secretary, who wants to compare the wait of veterans for care to the wait of a family at Disney, and the veterans waiting for care," McGregor said.
Due to all of these problems, the CVA spokesman explained that he does not even use the VA for healthcare. "Fortunately, I have the ability to get healthcare through a private practitioner through my employer. I have the ability to go to the VA in Houston, but I would rather pay for my healthcare myself than go through the red tape and the bureaucracy."
That's right -- the VA is taking more and more of our tax dollars, and some veterans know the wait is so bad they won't even darken the doorstep of the administration. Sounds like it's time for a change.