- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Top VA officials on Tuesday blamed employees for the long wait times and poor quality of care that have dogged the department’s health care network, telling a Senate hearing that staffers have ignored directives from their superiors to improve performance.

But lawmakers said that the department’s culture needed an overhaul, and quickly, and praised new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald for “hitting the ground sprinting.”

It was a far cry from earlier this year, when the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee grilled Mr. McDonald’s predecessor and other top VA officials, demanding firings and accountability from a department reeling from whistleblower accusations that veterans had died because of botched care and secret wait lists at the Phoenix VA health center.

The VA inspector general found scheduling issues, data manipulation and poor quality of care in Phoenix — though the agency watchdog couldn’t conclusively link those problems to the 40 deaths that occurred while veterans were waiting for care.

“That happens when there’s a failure of leadership,” Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general, told senators. “Excellent policies were in fact sent out but you have to follow through.”

Republican lawmakers have criticized the Phoenix report, saying VA officials pressured the IG into saying the deaths could not be tied to poor care. Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, questioned why the VA added a sentence specifically ruling out a causal relationship between the poor care and the deaths after an earlier draft, without that sentence, had been shown to VA officials.

Mr. Griffin admitted the IG’s office added the sentence later in the process but insisted that the office was not pressured to reach that conclusion.

“No one at the VA dictated that sentence go in that report, period,” he said, promising to provide a time line of edits to the committee later.

The inspector general said the Veterans Health Administration has a broad problem of setting good goals and failing to follow up when employees ignore them.

“I think you have a culture where it’s OK to disregard directives from the most senior people in the administration. You need to come to understand that is not acceptable behavior,” he said.

Senators said Mr. McDonald must quickly change that culture.

“No matter what steps VA takes to address the challenges it faces delivering health care, VA will not be able to move forward if this corrosive culture is not addressed,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican.

Mr. McDonald laid out some changes he plans, including streamlining the bureaucracy in the department and telling employees that veterans should be the center of every action.

Mr. McDonald also touted his early success in the department, including hiring 53 more full-time staff in Phoenix, contacting almost 300,000 veterans to get them off wait lists and proposing disciplinary action for three senior executive service employees at the Phoenix facility.

The IG still has 93 ongoing investigations at VA facilities across the country and, despite the agency’s claims of progress, has found evidence of data manipulation at a majority of them.

Among the findings: Managers at 13 facilities misled investigators about scheduling problems and other issues, and officials at 42 of the 93 sites engaged in manipulation of scheduling, including 19 sites where appointments were canceled and then rescheduled for the same day to meet on-time performance goals set by agency higher-ups.

Sixteen facilities used paper waiting lists for patients instead of an electronic waiting list, as required, Mr. Griffin said.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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