- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2014

A veteran with serious mental health problems waited more than eight years after being admitted at the Brockton, Massachusetts, VA healthcare facility for a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation — part of a “troubling pattern” of neglect across the country, according to a report released Monday by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel.

The OSC, which is charged with protecting whistleblowers, said the Veterans Affairs Department blew off complaints as “harmless error” that didn’t affect veterans’ care and did nothing to fix problems, even when the whistleblowers’ reports are found to be true.

“I remain concerned about the department’s willingness to acknowledge and address the impact these problems may have on the health and safety of veterans,” Carolyn Lerner, head of the OSC, said in a stern letter to President Obama saying the VA was blind to “systemic problems” and wasn’t taking steps to fix the problems.


SEE ALSO: Senate OKs bill allowing vets to bypass VA’s long waits


“As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk,” she wrote.

In response to the report, VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said he is requiring a full review of the recommendations and personnel actions at the Office of the Medical Inspector to be completed within two weeks. The Office of the Medical Inspector is responsible for monitoring and improving healthcare at the VA.

“I respect and welcome the letter and the insights from the Office of Special Counsel,” Mr. Gibson said. “I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously.”


SEE ALSO: VA hospital staff got $1M in bonuses while therapy pool for wounded vets closed


Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations, said it’s important to wait for the results of this review before drawing any conclusions when asked about the letter at a Monday night hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“The Office of the Medical Inspector is unique in health care. We don’t see it in the private sector,” he said. “VA and our acting secretary have taken those concerns very seriously. We need to take those seriously because VA is in a position where we have to re-establish our credibility.”

Dr. Lynch said holding a mental health patient for years with no evaluation was “unacceptable,” but Rep. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat, said that he would call it a “national tragedy.”

The hearing focused on a new initiative at the VA aimed to reduce wait times that the department says allowed for 200,000 more appointments to be scheduled during the end of May.

Lawmakers, however, questioned how they could trust the department’s numbers after so much data manipulation and criticized the VA for not yet providing a briefing on the program.

Problems at the VA recently came to light when more than 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for care after being kept off the books at the Phoenix facility.

A preliminary inspector general’s report confirmed that scheduling problems “negatively impacted the quality of care” in Phoenix — but the VA denied that scheduling problems affected patients at the medical center in Fort Collins, Colorado. The OSC called that inconsistency troubling and said denying the effects of bungled scheduling on veterans’ care was “a serious disservice to the veterans who received inadequate patient care for years after being admitted to VA facilities.”

The final report from the VA is dated April 11 — just weeks before the Phoenix allegations were first discovered, but less than six months after CNN reported that three veterans died as a result of delayed care at the VA facility in Augusta, Georgia.

There are now more than 50 reports from whistleblowers pending at OSC, all of which allege poor patient care or safety issues for veterans, Ms. Lerner’s letter said. More than half have been referred to the VA for further investigation.