Veterans Affairs Department Still Not Living Up to Promises of Reform

Michi Iljazi

May 25, 2016

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, with President Obama 

This weekend is Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is grateful to all of those in the United States Armed Forces who put their lives on the line so that America can be a safer and freer place.  Memorial Day is also a reminder of the shameful treatment U.S. veterans are receiving at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics and hospitals.

The past two years have been filled with heart breaking stories about appalling conditions and long wait times at VA hospitals.  In a statement on May 23, VA Secretary Robert McDonald compared waiting in line at Disneyland to the time veterans have had to wait for medical care.  CNN reported, “McDonald stated that, ’When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important?’ McDonald told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington. ‘What’s important is what’s your satisfaction with the experience?’”  CNN also noted that, “American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett excoriated McDonald: ‘The American Legion agrees that the VA secretary’s analogy between Disneyland and VA wait times was an unfortunate comparison because people don’t die while waiting to go on Space Mountain. We also disagree with the substance of his comment because wait times are very important to not just the satisfaction quotient, but in some cases the veterans health,’ he said in a statement.”

Problems at the VA have been going in for a long time, but it was just more than two years ago in April of 2014 that the public found out about a secret wait list at a Phoenix VA Hospital.  This put the spotlight on the Department in one of the most gut wrenching stories of government mismanagement.

After reporting on wait times, CNN broke the story wide open with the scathing details of what went on in Phoenix, AZ as veterans lost their lives waiting for critical care after being put on a “secret waiting list”: 

The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.

The story followed with more reporting and deeper digging into the problems that infected VA clinics around the country as well as the larger dysfunction and lack of leadership that existed at the agency itself. The public was outraged and demanded action be taken by elected and agency officials.  More examples began to show up across the country and it was clear the problem was not isolated to one clinic or one state. In Austin, TX there was a “known” policy in of falsifying information on patient wait times.  In Wyoming, there were examples of staffers manipulating the “Desired Date” of appointments. In South Carolina, 50 patients saw a delayed diagnosis for colon cancer and in some cases succumbed to the disease.

A number of actions were taken to rectify the situation, including:

  • VA Secretary (and retired General) Eric Shinseki stepped down.  He was replaced by Robert McDonald whose experience in the private sector was seen as a plus;
  • The VA budget received $17 billion budget increase, including $10 billion in emergency funding;
  • Detailed reports and investigations were done on VA clinics across the country to indentify specific and systemic problems.

More money and changes in leadership don’t mean anything unless resources are used to fix problems. Unfortunately, two years later the same problems persist. Money isn’t going where it’s needed and those at the top appear to be out of touch when it comes to the problems the agency is still facing.

After two years since the scandal at the Phoenix, AZ clinic broke, here are some of the latest noteworthy items of “progress” at the VA:

Wait times:

The Associated Press conducted a study between September 2014 to February 2015 and found major problems in VA clinics in Maryland: 

  • VA clinics in Glen Burnie, Cambridge and Cumberland all ranked in the nation’s 100 worst VA clinics and hospitals for wait time;
  • Glen Burnie was among the 50 worst clinics, delaying 8.11 percent of appointments at least 31 days;
  • Cambridge VA clinic and delayed 5.81 percent of appointments at least 31 days;
  • Cumberland VA clinic delayed 5.39 percent of appointments at least 31 days;
  • Seven of Maryland’s 14 VA clinics and hospitals saw wait times above the national average.

Veterans are still seeing the problems with wait times continue to persist at VA clinics across the nation. In some cases the wait times are actually longer in some cities than they were two years ago. Recently, multiple investigate reports showed that officials in several states falsified patient wait times.


Bonuses:

In the aftermath of the 2014 scandal, 156,000 VA employees received $142 million in bonuses, including some at the executive level. Then-VA Secretary Shinseki at the time the scandal broke had pledged to stop bonus pay. However, he resigned in May of 2014 and the bonuses were ultimately paid out.

TPA is outraged not just for taxpayers but for every service-member (active and retired) and all of their families. Billions of dollars is being appropriated with the knowledge internally and externally that the VA is need of restructuring and that wait times and conditions at the clinics must be fixed. Instead our veterans in some of these clinics are waiting longer and the new Secretary dismisses the problem with a comparison to a theme park. Unacceptable. Congress has recently taken some steps to address the continued problems at the VA, but there is more work that must be done. Simply throwing money at the problem clearly isn’t enough.

As millions of families across America celebrate Memorial Day weekend with trips to the beach and cookouts on the grill, think about our veterans and their families. They deserve better and with taxpayers putting billions of dollars on the table and Congress sending it to the VA, the agency and their officials need to make sure that changes are made that move wait times in the right direction. Secretary McDonald must gain control of the situation instead of dismissing it using poorly crafted comparisons to deflect from the continued problems the agency is facing.

TPA hopes that next Memorial Day we can give a more positive update on how the agency is doing implementing the reforms they so desperately need for the sake of our veterans.