A top House Republican criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday for persistently misleading the public and Congress on the amount of time veterans must wait to receive health care.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the VA is still manipulating its records and failing to hold employees accountable for inaccurate record keeping, two years after a scandal hit the agency over phony waiting lists and veterans who died awaiting care.
“Two years after what was and is a systemic crisis in care being brought to light, it is time for VA to stop using misleading data to tout wait times successes that simply do not show the real wait time experience of veterans,” Mr. Miller said at an oversight hearing.
A Government Accountability Office report on Monday found that veterans waited from 22 days to 71 days from the time they requested appointments until they were actually seen by a provider. Mr. Miller said the findings were “significantly more than the five-day average Secretary [Bob] McDonald declared earlier this month.”
Mr. Miller said the agency is manipulating its data to make its performance appear better than it really is.
“Instead of considering a veteran’s wait time to be from the date when the veteran first contacts VA to request an appointment to when the appointment takes place, VA considers a veteran’s wait time to be from the date when the veteran wants the appointment to occur to the date when the appointment actually occurs,” the lawmaker said. “The obvious result of VA reporting only a portion of veterans’ actual wait times is artificially low results. I still do not understand a culture that persists in presenting inaccurate data.”
Dr. David Shulkin, undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, said the VA is “working to rebuild trust with veterans and the American people, improve service delivery, and set the course for long-term VA excellence and reform, while delivering better access to care.”
He said VHA held two “stand-down” events in November 2015 and in February to contact veterans with urgent health care needs, and to reduce the number of about 80,000 veterans who were waiting more than 30 days for urgent care. Dr. Shulkin said 93 percent of the those veterans were contacted.
Dr. Shulkin also said the VA opposes legislation, approved by the House last year and under consideration by the Senate, that would make it easier to fire negligent or corrupt officials. He expressed concern that the language would “roll back employment protections.”
Congress passed legislation in 2014 to make it easier for the VA to fire senior officials, but Mr. Miller said the agency has been reluctant to use the new authority.
“Despite years of reports confirming systemic issues, the department has successfully fired just four people for wait-time manipulation while letting the bulk of those behind its nationwide delays-in-care scandal off with no discipline or weak slaps on the wrist,” Mr. Miller said.
At the hearing, Debra Draper, the GAO’s director of health care, cited inconstancies in the VA’s handling of veterans’ health care appointments in a timely manner.
“For example, one veteran was contacted within 7 days of being placed on the … list, but no appointment was available until 73 days after the veteran’s preferred appointment date, and a total of 94 days elapsed before the veteran was seen by a provider,” she testified. “In another example, a veteran wanted to be seen as soon as possible, but no appointment was available for 63 days.”
She said officials at each of the six VA medical centers reviewed “told us that they have difficulty keeping up with the demand for primary care appointments for new patients because of shortages in the number of providers, or lack of space due to rapid growth in the demand for these services.”