Friday, June 06, 2014

VA’s Actions “Nothing Short Of Criminal”

Veterans have always been abused, neglected; Obama criminals were simply more adept at hiding it - until now

By Congressman Jeff Denham

President Obama has accepted Sec. Shinseki’s resignation. Before departing, Shinseki fired the leadership of the Phoenix Medical Clinic and froze all related bonuses for the remainder of this fiscal year.

Obama's message to Veterans
I hope that Secretary Shinseki’s resignation on Friday will enable the VA to make the drastic changes that are needed. We must ensure that whoever is put in his place is getting honest answers from VA leadership and that real accountability can be implemented across the Department.

Last week I introduced the Veterans Need Timely Access to Care Act, H.R. 4779, to increase and speed up healthcare access for veterans nationwide. 

My bill would pre-authorize a veteran to receive care from a local doctor or clinic outside of the VA if the wait time for an appointment is longer than the VA’s current wait time goals of 7 days for primary care and 14 days in the case of specialty care. 

Reports of multiple VA centers being unable to meet their wait time goals in the past has made this bill essential to immediate veteran care.

As a veteran, member of Congress, and member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, I have a responsibility to over 60,000 veterans who live in the counties I represent and to the millions more who rely on the VA. 

They deserve transparency and quality care, and I consider it an honor to work each day to help ensure they receive all that they are due for their sacrifice in serving our country.

Amid appalling revelations that 40 veterans died while waiting for care after being placed on a secret waitlist at the Phoenix Park Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, last night I and other members of the Committee on Veterans Affairs convened a hearing to get answers from VA officials. We heard testimony from Dr. Thomas Lynch, the VA’s Assistant Deputy Undersecretary for Clinical Operations and Management, Ms. Joan Mooney, the VA’s Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs and Mr. Michael Huff, a Congressional Relations Officer with the department.

During our hearing, I asked Dr. Lynch about two of the 40 veterans who died waiting to receive the healthcare they deserved in Phoenix.

Thomas Breen, a 71-year-old Navy veteran from Brooklyn, New York, went to the Phoenix Park VA for treatment last fall and was told he had an “urgent” condition, but was unable to secure an appointment. 

His family called repeatedly and did everything they could to try to get a doctor to treat Mr. Breene. They waited from September to November for a space to open up for him to see a physician, right up until the day he died, on November 30, 2013. The VA called his family a week later to book the appointment he desperately needed, too late to save Mr. Breene.

James Pert was a Marine who fought in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. 

In his early 60s, James was partially disabled. His exposure to Agent Orange and his PTSD led to numerous health problems, and he was suffering from skin cancer. 

When he moved to Phoenix, he visited the VA in need of a cancer screening and was told the wait list to see a VA doctor was 6-9 months long. He thought he had signed up, but we now know James was never even put on the real list – only the secret waiting list. When the VA finally screened him to see if his cancer had returned months later, it was too late to save his life.

When the VA finally screened him to see if his cancer had returned months later, it was too late to save his life. 

Dr. Lynch could not provide any reason why the Phoenix VAMC would call the family of a deceased veteran or why anyone would be told they would have to wait 6-9 months to see a VA physician. 

To say that I was unsatisfied with his answers to my questions is an understatement, and there are 38 more stories like these of heroes who died waiting for us to care for them.

Instead of reassurance that the disturbing actions taken by VA officials in Phoenix happened in isolation, I was told that the problems within the VA are widespread and systemic.

Prior to yesterday’s hearing, the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General released an interim report on their investigation into the secret waitlists at veterans’ hospitals across America. According to this report, 1,700 veterans who sought care at Phoenix were not scheduled according to standard procedures. Veterans were instead placed on an unofficial wait list until hospital officials were sure that they could be seen within the 14 day timeline that the VA has set for its goal to meet patients.

The interim report also showed multiple instances of data manipulation on the local level at other VA locations, distorting the legitimacy of reported waiting times.

Today there are ongoing or scheduled investigations at 42 different VA medical facilities.

I expect to be able to give the veterans I represent clear and honest answers. The Veterans Affairs committee and I rely on the VA’s data, reported from medical centers and hospitals across the country, to make decisions about the best ways to provide care and to perform our oversight function. 

We place enormous trust in the VA through the advance appropriations process, allocating the proper funds to ensure our veterans are provided for the way they should be. Yet we’re now learning that the officials in Phoenix Park blatantly lied in their reports. I’ve lost confidence in the VA to report the truth, and so have veterans across the country.

In light of the testimony I heard last night and the disturbing information contained in the Inspector General’s report, it is clear that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs new leadership. The way our veterans were treated in Phoenix and multiple other VA hospitals nationwide is nothing short of criminal. As the head of the VA, Secretary Eric Shinseki has served his country honorably. However, we can’t expect accountability within the VA if it doesn’t start at the top. It is time for Secretary Shinseki to step down, and drastic changes must take place in order to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve.

I want to see a world-class system for our veterans. I want a VA that works. Our veterans deserve nothing less.

Jeff Denham has represented California’s 10th Congressional District since 2011. He serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure, Agriculture and the Veterans’ Affairs committees. In addition, he served in the U.S. Air Force for a combined 16 years of active duty and reserve service. He fought in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Restore Hope in Iraq and Somalia, respectively.

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