The VA is still struggling to right its image after last year’s waitlist scandal, but veterans gathered at the American Legion’s convention this weekend said they see a department picking itself up and already on the path to recovery.
Legion members said they’re particularly eager to see the new leadership show it has learned from the scandal that led to their installment after having seen dozens of veterans die while awaiting care, having appointments denied and being shunted onto secret waitlists.
“Look, you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk, before you can fly, right? The VA is just learning to crawl, and the American public wants them to fly,” said Dave Hazelwood, who served in both Vietnam and Korea. “You can’t do that without going in between.”
Mr. Hazelwood, who has had chemotherapy and wrist surgery at the VA clinic in Wichita, Kansas, over the last decade, said the quality of care has steadily improved.
“Some things work, some things don’t,” he said. “Only 1 percent of this country are veterans, but even 50 percent of the 1 percent is a heck of a lot of people. Some fall through the cracks, right?”
It’s those cracks that have landed the VA in hot water. The Phoenix clinic was initially caught rejecting appointments and pushing veterans onto the secret waitlists in order to make it look like the clinic was meeting its targets for speedy care and earning bonuses for its leaders. Clinics across the country were discovered to be doing similar things.
President Obama ousted the VA secretary, and Congress rushed to pass legislation giving veterans the power to go outside the department, getting care from private doctors. Part of the law also gives new Secretary Robert McDonald streamlined powers to fire top executives. The firings haven’t happened as quickly as Congress wants, but veterans said they’re giving the new leadership a chance.
Dr. David Shulkin, the VA’s new undersecretary for health, told the legionnaires that the VA is the best health system in the country — though he acknowledged he inherited many problems, including the wait-time crisis, a $3 billion shortfall in funding this year and an increasing number of patients signing up to use the VA.
Dr. Shulkin said those problems had been “building for a long time,” but said the Veterans Health Administration, which he heads, is doing many things right.
“I’m going to be very, very focused on telling good things of the VA. Nobody’s been doing that. We’ve only been hearing bad things, and we need to focus on good things as well,” he said.
Still, the challenges are big: 35 percent of VA medical centers do not have a permanent CEO, meaning there’s nobody to do long-term planning. And hospitals are inconsistent, meaning the quality of the same procedures can vary dramatically from clinic to clinic. Mr. Hazelwood, for example, said he still gets his dental work done in Omaha, Nebraska.
Dr. Shulkin said he is pushing a pilot program that would let veterans schedule appointments by smartphone, and to change how appointments are classified so wait times for an appointment concerning chest pains aren’t the categorized the same as an appointment for a routine physical exam.
All of this sounds promising to Bill Lipetzky, a retired Navy veteran.
“Dr. Shulkin wasn’t installed too long ago, and he has a lot of ideas for the future. After Phoenix, you know, they’ve really got to get themselves together and on the right track,” he said.
The VA’s workload has increased dramatically. Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits, said they doubled their disability compensation claims over the last five years. A higher survival rate of veterans also means they have a longer relationship with the VA.
Veterans at the convention, however, said they understood the challenges the beleaguered agency has faced. After Dr. Shulkin and Ms. Hickey spoke to the crowd of veterans, they were immediately thanked by dozens of veterans who wanted to say their local VA office did great work.
One veteran from Georgia stood up and declared, “I’ve been going to the VA for 20 years, and they have always given me wonderful care. I’m alive today because of it. I had breast cancer, and because of the VA, I am here today.”
Another veteran introduced his therapy dog to Ms. Hickey, thanking her and her office for approving the dog. But he was disappointed that one of his friends had been turned down for a dog, and encouraged her to change the process so more veterans would be eligible for canine companionship.