- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Veterans Affairs Department is taking weeks to provide or repair hearing aids for its patients, leaving hearing-impaired veterans at risk in the latest failure by the agency charged with caring for America’s war heroes.

The VA has promised to provide hearing aids within five days, but the agency’s inspector general found that the average wait time was between 17 and 24 days. About 30 percent of veterans are waiting 30 days or more, and of those, 10 percent are waiting to have their hearing aids fixed for two months or more, a report released last week found.

VA officials blamed staffing issues for the delays, but investigators actually visited a facility where large numbers of hearing devices were sitting undistributed in boxes and on carts.

Veterans groups are outraged, saying that the delays pose a serious threat to veterans’ safety.

“It’s a safety issue, they are put at risk,” said Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “If they cross the street and don’t hear an approaching car anything can happen if you’re not hearing well.”

Other groups have said the waiting periods for new hearing aids and hearing aid repairs is unsatisfactory.

“We do believe that it is unacceptable that veterans are having to wait this long,” said Edward Lilley, a senior field service representative at the American Legion. “The VA needs to meet their own standard.”

Mr. Lilley added that the American Legion plans to reach out to the VA inspector general to follow up on the report and obtain more information.

Investigators said they think that 30 days — 25 days later than the VA’s goal — “allows sufficient time for medical facilities to issue a hearing aid to a veteran who depends on it for their daily activities.”

Inspectors visited the Denver Acquisition and Logistics Center (DALC), which serves as a central processing facility for the VA, and said they observed 19,500 hearing aids backlogged, unopened, sitting on carts and waiting for repairs or replacements.

Part of the reason the agency kept veterans waiting was because staff never recorded when they received the hearing aids or requests for the devices.

“Without a timely recording system, staff cannot adequately respond to or track inquiries from veterans and medical facilities concerning the status of a hearing aid pending repair services,” the IG said in a report released Thursday.

DALC said that five of their 21 technician positions for working on the hearing aids were vacant for much of 2012, and that the repair lab hasn’t been fully staffed since February 2011.

“Medical facilities’ audiology staff attributed the delays to inadequate staffing to meet an increased workload,” the IG said.

Meanwhile, the workload has been steadily ticking upward, with 358,000 repairs of hearing aids in fiscal 2011 and 394,000 in fiscal 2012.

“VA needs to fill those positions so veterans can get their hearing aids back in a timely manner,” Mr. Manar said. “They are really handicapped without them. If they can’t hear, it’s a real problem, not just conversationally, but in terms of safety.”

But the IG said that more people wouldn’t help fix the backlog, and that the problems lie elsewhere.

“We estimated a fully staffed repair lab would only decrease the average number of days to complete repair services by about five days,” investigators said. “This would make the average number of days 15, which is still 10 days more than their five-day timeliness goal.”

The problem needs to be fixed, the IG said, because the demand for repair and replacement services is only going to increase.

“Due to the aging veteran population, VA’s audiology service and repair workloads are expected to continue to increase,” the report said. “Therefore, it is imperative that VA effectively manages its delivery of hearing aid services and repairs.”

Tinnitus — ringing in the ears — and hearing loss were the most common and second most common service-related disabilities among veterans, the IG said. During fiscal 2012, the VA said it ordered roughly $221 million worth of new hearing aid parts for veterans and repaired about $16.5 million worth of parts.

The Veterans Health Administration said it agreed with all the inspector generals recommendations and has already taken steps to fix problems and make improvements.

The VHA is already working on a plan to improve productivity standards by fiscal 2015. In response to the report, the VHA has expanded the improvement plan to include the non-physician discipline of Audiology beginning in fiscal 2016.

In addition, the Denver distribution center said in its response that it is also securing more staffing and improving the tracking and monitoring of hearing aids from the date received for repair.

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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