Dishonesty about VA delays shouldn’t be tolerated

The News TribuneMay 25, 2014 

On Monday the nation will observe Memorial Day, when we honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion in military service. It might also be appropriate to remember those veterans whose lives may have ended prematurely because of delayed care at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Reports allege that VA employees at some hospitals have falsified data to obscure long wait times for veterans to get appointments – and that they were instructed to do so by managers. A former Phoenix clinic director claims that up to 40 veterans died while on the waiting list.

The manipulation of data shouldn’t come as a big surprise to the Obama adminstration – which makes it all that harder to swallow the outrage expressed by the president and VA Secretary Eric K Shinseki. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2012 that the VA has been “unreliable” regarding appointments, that wait times depended on when VA staffers chose to date the request. The GAO recommended a complete overhaul of the reporting system.

The falsifications appear to be related to the VA’s push to clear up a huge backlog of disability claims, coupled with a recent surge in demand from two different kinds of veterans seeking care: older retirees, particularly from the Vietnam War era, seeking treatment for the predictable problems of advancing years, and younger ones injured by recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That demand can be seen locally. VA Puget Sound’s patient load in 2000 was 54,000. It’s projected to be 100,000 this year. Given the crush nationwide, some delays may be understandable – but not dishonesty about it.

So far, auditors have found no evidence of falsifying wait-time records at VA Puget Sound, reports The News Tribune’s Adam Ashton in today’s front-page article. But the local VA – which operates hospitals in Seattle and at American Lake in Lakewood – isn’t meeting national wait-time goals. In March, about 1,100 patients waited more than two weeks for a primary care visit.

Although many veterans say they’re pleased with the care they receive from the VA, Ashton talked with others who have been frustrated by long wait times.

Among them are Cory Kemp of Lacey, who was blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan four years ago, and Brian Ansley of Olympia, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq. Both have had trouble scheduling appointments and getting care. The family of a third veteran, Cliff Douglass of Issaquah, is suing the VA, charging that a delay in treating his melanoma led to his death.

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation to make VA employees more accountable and to freeze bonuses to senior managers. That’s a start. We’ll know it’s working when veterans aren’t going from sick to sicker during long waits to see a doctor.

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