The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general says more than 300,000 veterans likely died waiting to be added to to the beleaguered federal program, and one of the leading congressional investigators says solutions are slow in coming because VA leaders are slow to report critical data and what they do submit often cannot be trusted.
Last week, the inspector general reported that 800,000 veterans suffered unacceptable delays in getting their applications processed just to enter the system. That information did not come willingly. It was demanded by Congress.
“This is a report that came out from the inspector general simply because our committee asked for it,” Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., told WND and Radio America. “Now the VA’s own inspector general is admitting 800,000 records were stalled in their system.”
Benishek was a surgeon for decades at a VA hospital in his district. He is now a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and chairman of its health subcommittee.
The IG report is the latest massive black eye for the VA. In May 2014, whistleblowers revealed veterans were forced to wait months for treatment in many cases, and some facilities cooked the books to make it look like care was being delivered in a much more timely fashion.
Despite a major reform bill signed into law last year, Benishek said it’s unclear what progress is actually being made.
“I understand it’s difficult to get things moving in government,” he said. “You need to make some dramatic steps to get this ship turned around, but I don’t know that it’s actually turning around.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich.:
A big reason lawmakers struggle to chart any improvement at the VA is the stunning lack of cooperation from the VA itself.
“If we had facts, if we had the data, then we could make better decisions,” Benishek said. “The VA’s been unforthcoming to provide that data. The administration needs to get up front and center. The president should really make this a priority.”
Adding to the frustration, Benishek said, is the nagging doubt about the accuracy of the little information the VA does provide to Congress.
“They keep saying, ‘We’re working on it. We’re working on it,’ and then you heard last year that all the numbers were cooked,” Benishek said. “It’s hard to trust what we get out of them. Frankly, that’s a continued problem. Until I see some improvement there, I’m going to continue to hammer on them to make faster improvements.”
So far, it’s been one excuse after another.
“Just before we left for our break, they told us they were $3 billion over budget in providing health care for veterans, and they didn’t even know it because they had ‘old software.’ This kind of mismanagement can’t be tolerated anymore. We need to put a stop to it,” he said.
One of the most hopeful aspects of the reform package last year allowed veterans to seek health care in the private marketplace and send the bill to the government. The “choice” program was expected to improve care and reduce the backlog, but it hasn’t always worked out that way.
“It hasn’t been working that well because the VA has had a hard time signing up providers for it. I’ve had veterans complain to me that it hasn’t been working for them in all cases. I’ve had other veterans tell me that it’s working OK,” said Benishek, who noted that another massive headache centers around vast disparities in competency and leadership from facility to facility.
“Depending on where you are in the country, there’s different performance of the VA. There’s not a standardized performance nationwide,” Benishek said. “If you’ve been to one VA hospital, you’ve been to one VA hospital.”
Another part of the reform bill was the demand for an independent assessment of the VA’s practices. That report is due soon, and Benishek said he is tentatively encouraged by the executive summary. He said one simple idea that could have avoided a lot of hassle for veterans is for the medical records of active-duty military personnel to automatically transfer from the Department of Defense to the VA.
But even the simple ideas tend to hit major roadblocks. Benishek said this idea has been tried before, and it was a flop.
“We’ve worked with the Department of Defense and the VA Department in the past, and both secretaries were in front of me in a committee saying, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ We spent $3 billion on making it happen, and nothing happened,” Benishek said.
He also believes the VA should study what works best at effective VA hospitals and push those standards and practices on the dysfunctional facilities.
“In my district, we have a good VA hospital director. He’s been working with us well, solves the problems that we bring to his attention. That should be going on all over the country,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, real progress will require the government making this a top priority, and that’s not happening right now. He said loud insistence on progress from the American people could make a huge difference.
“It’s really up to the American people to put enough pressure on the administration to make some real change in the VA,” Benishek said.