The Obama administration has failed to fix the nation’s broken health care system for veterans or change the culture of mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a former VA official and a veterans group charged Thursday.
Darin Selnick, who served on the agency’s Commission on Care, said a government watchdog report outlining new cases of veterans dying while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital proves that VA Secretary Robert McDonald and his leadership team can’t solve the department’s chronic problems.
“Phoenix is a symptom of the VA’s broken health care system,” Mr. Selnick told reporters. “It’s a poster child for bad management, poor leadership, leadership turnover, no accountability and no follow-up. Nothing changes.”
More than 200 veterans have died while waiting for medical care at the VA hospital in Phoenix, two years after the same facility was at the center of a scandal in which employees falsified patient records to hide the length of their waiting periods.
The VA inspector general reported this week that 215 deceased patients had open specialist consultation appointments at the Phoenix facility on the day they died. The report said one veteran never received an appointment for a cardiology exam “that could have prompted further definitive testing and interventions that could have forestalled his death.”
Dan Caldwell, vice president of Concerned Veterans for America, said the new revelations are “absolutely depressing.”
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“If they can’t fix this hospital that is at the center of the national waitlist scandal, can they fix any hospital?” Mr. Caldwell said. “Clearly there are still some very serious problems, not just at the Phoenix VA, but across the whole health care system.”
The VA did not respond to a request for comment. After the inspector general report was released Tuesday, the agency said it would develop “a process to review charts of deceased patients with open consults to determine if there was a delay in scheduling the requested care, and if so, how that delay might have impacted the outcome.”
“Though we have made irrefutable progress, there is still much work to be done,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said.
Mr. Selnick, a former VA official in the George W. Bush administration, said current agency managers acknowledge they are simply waiting for Mr. McDonald’s tenure to end when President Obama leaves office in January.
“What they tell us is that Secretary McDonald’s efforts are going nowhere,” Mr. Selnick said. “He’s on the way out. His ‘MyVA’ initiative, nobody’s paying attention to it. He’s somewhat of a joke. He really hasn’t fired anybody, they know it, and they’re waiting him out while that bad culture continues.”
At a town hall meeting with troops and military families last week at Fort Lee, Virginia, Mr. Obama said his administration has made a lot of progress in improving services at the VA.
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“We have, in fact, fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities,” the president said.
But the official who was in charge of the Phoenix facility in 2014, Sharon Helman, was fired for receiving unauthorized gifts, not for her role in the waitlist scandal. Congressional Republicans say overall, nine people have been fired for manipulating wait times.
“President Obama can’t seem to get his facts straight when it comes to VA accountability because — just like the department’s leaders — he is not at all focused on it,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Mr. Obama said he wasn’t trying to “sugarcoat” the problems with the VA.
“The incidents that we saw in Phoenix I think were inexcusable, but they were also an indication that you have a system, a bureaucracy that had gotten overwhelmed,” the president said. “And now when you have a lot more veterans coming home needing treatment, even with some of the improvements that are made, there were still inexcusable wait times.”
He said his administration has increased funding for the VA by 85 percent, but the agency is still struggling to upgrade outdated scheduling systems.
“It’s really important to understand that the VA schedules 58 million appointments every year,” Mr. Obama said. “And I want zero errors in all that process. We’re not anywhere near zero errors. And sadly, there are real consequences for people when that happens.”
Mr. Caldwell said Mr. McDonald shouldn’t be allowed to stay on the job in the next administration. He said veterans need “someone who does not have a rigid ideological commitment to government health care.”