Veterans Affairs Problems Extend Far Beyond Phoenix Woes

Wednesday, 30 Apr 2014 11:52 AM

By Andrea Billups

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Problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs extend far beyond the recent disclosure that 40 veterans died while awaiting medical appointments in Phoenix.

The VA said in its April 2014 Fact Sheet that 23 veterans suffering from cancer died while awaiting medical appointments at VA hospitals throughout the system, while another 53 patients suffered some type of harm as a result of "consult" delays in gastrointestinal cancer screenings, including routine but life-saving colonoscopies.

News of the most recent deaths and poor standard of care given to veterans adds to a growing list of complaints leveled at the agency by critics, including hospital staff coverups, manipulation of data, lack of transparency, and lengthy delays for beneficiaries. The recent disclosures also come on the heels of reports last year that VA workers destroyed patient records at a center in St. Louis.

The many problems resulted in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairscreating a VA Accountability Watch website to track the myriad instances of malfeasance in the agency.

In a pointed explanation for the website's creation, the committee said: "VA Accountability Watch is dedicated to showing America's veterans and American taxpayers how the department's widespread and systemic lack of accountability may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it."

Congress continues to raise questions about the VA's ongoing issues, which include a massive backlog — more than 900,000 last year — in disability benefit claims and appeals.

Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, who chairs the House committee, said at an emotional hearing earlier this month that he thought the VA's latest death figures are likely at the low end, according to information uncovered by congressional investigators.

At the hearing, Miller and other members of the committee expressed anger that the VA had not responded to their inquiries or given appropriate answers for what was going on within their facilities. Some lawmakers were overtaken by emotion as one veteran with cancer whose care was delayed testified about his treatment.

Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana described the VA as "a bureaucratic system that is broken" and a "bureaucracy that is out of control."

"If this happened in the civilian world, where negligence was proven time and time again, we would be in the streets with signs saying shut them down," Walorski said during the hearing. "This is an American disaster."

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week announced its own review.

"I am troubled when I hear any veteran may have received substandard care from the VA," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the committee. "I take these allegations very seriously."

Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans, called for an additional Senate investigation over the allegations stemming from Phoenix.

"I am appalled by the number of veterans who stated to my office that the VA was just 'waiting' or 'hoping' that they would die and be one less burden on the system,"  McCain, himself a decorated veteran, wrote to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

"These increasing individual delays clearly illustrate systemic problems with how effectively the VA is providing care to our veterans," McCain wrote.

Alan Alford, vice president of the veterans group Fighting for Our Heroes Foundation, headquartered in Florida, defended some recent progress by the VA, including its attempt to reduce its massive claims backlogs.

"The VA has had problems as long as there has been a VA, but for the first time in a very long time, they are trying. They are making progress. Anyone trying to handle 22 million people, you are bound to have problems," Alford told Newsmax.

"I think the secretary is doing a good job. His policies are headed in the right direction, but they are often undermined by the people underneath him," Alford added.

"If you look at it statistically, the number of claims has gone down by over 150,000 since this time last year," he said. "It's progress.

"They are overloaded and trying to take steps to correct that, but I think it was such a nightmarish system that was in place for so long, it's like you are trying to put a teaspoon of gas into an empty tank."

In Phoenix, VA officials compiled a "secret" waiting list to hide the fact that appointments for doctor diagnosis and treatment had been delayed, according to CNN, which has continued an ongoing of investigation of the agency.

The network, following a paper trail of internal emails, reported that the Phoenix hospital's management was aware of the waiting list and had defended its two tiers — a formal list of appointments that went to VA brass in Washington, showing that they were timely; and a second list, which allegedly showed some veterans waited for appointments for more than a year.

A former physician at the Phoenix hospital told CNN the lists were deliberately created to skirt VA rules, which require patients generally to be seen within 14 and 30 days. That physician outlined a process of doctors allegedly instructing staff to keep wait-time records out of the VA's computer system, or not to record appointments at all to ensure there was no record of them, masking delays that left some seriously ill vets to die.

His explanation, CNN noted, was confirmed by other high-level staffers. By the doctor's estimates, from1,400 to 1,600 veterans remained on the "secret" list, waiting to be seen by a primary care physician in Phoenix.

Officials at the VA's Phoenix Health Care System have called for a VA Inspector General's review. The director there denied that patients were delayed in receiving care and that online data was manipulated.

The scandal in Phoenix comes after two VA employees in St. Louis pleaded guilty in January to destroying records at the National Personnel Records Center.

More than 1,800 records were misfiled, dumped, or destroyed, The St. Louis Dispatch reported, noting that some were found discarded in the woods — the names and Social Security numbers readily visible. Others, an investigation found, were destroyed by the workers at home.

The dumping came after VA employees were offered pay incentives for the speed in which they handled records processing. Tougher cases to process were stashed away or misfiled. The records center keeps about 57 million files for military personnel.

While criticism of the VA continues, Alford says many veterans' support networks around the country have stepped up to fill the gaps on filing claims and helping to educate veterans on what benefits they are entitled to.

Alford lauded the agency's new online records system, which he said has helped veterans follow the status of their claims more efficiently.

According to the VA's website, with the agency's new Veteran's Benefits Management System, 82 percent of its claims inventory is electronic, helping to standardize files away from paperwork. The VA's website also notes that over the past year, its claims backlog has been reduced by more than 40 percent.

While Alford agrees the recent changes have been positive, he said much work is left to be done. Deep challenges remain for those vets who are still attempting to navigate the system and for those who grow ever more frustrated as they await decisions on claim appeals.

Such waits can go on for years, Alford noted, leaving many frustrated veterans to give up as they attempt to mine the bureaucracy of a daunting and often-confusing system.

"You often hear of appeals taking vets 10 to 15 to 20 years because of the appeals process," he said. "It's extremely long and complicated, and it's an extremely complex issue. To a veteran who is injured or living with a disability, they don't have that time or the ability to learn this stuff" and apply in a timely and appropriate manner.

"If a veteran loses a leg in Afghanistan this afternoon," Alford said, "it could be 10 years before they get proper compensation, to be able to get money they were promised by the government and the treatment they were promised. That is a huge problem."


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