The Fourth of July reminds the nation that our freedom comes at a cost to the members of our armed services; the guardians of our liberty. This Independence Day, not only should we honor the lives of those who have fought so bravely to protect our way of life, but we should also ask: Who will protect our veterans?
In late April, CNN investigative reporting uncovered that up to 40 U.S. veterans may have passed away after failing to receive needed treatment at a Phoenix, Arizona, Veteran Affairs (VA) hospital because of an alleged secret waitlist. Reportedly, the hospital kept one waitlist in paper format while it reported a separate electronic waitlist to federal officials showing timely treatment of its patients. As one former VA doctor explains, the hospital scheduler who was booking an appointment for a veteran would take a screenshot of the appointment in the computer scheduling database. Next, the scheduler would print out a hard copy of the screenshot showing that the veteran had made an appointment, but the scheduler would not save the original electronic version from which he had taken the screenshot into the hospital’s appointment database. The scheduler would then take the information contained on the hardcopy and would place it on a secret electronic list. As a result, the appointment waitlist that the hospital later gave to federal officials would show that the hospital was meeting its appointment times, however, those times were entirely made up.
The problem of hiding appointments and concealing information from federal authorities may not be unique to the Phoenix VA hospital. Brian Turner, a whistleblower who worked at two Texas VA hospitals, recently contacted the VA inspector general after the Phoenix incident. Turner said, “Phoenix just so happened to open the eyes of others such as myself” and encouraged him to report incidents of “cooking the books” for veterans’ appointments there as well. Turner, a scheduler for the hospital, explained that he and other schedulers would book a veteran asking for an appointment for the next available date, but would then log it into the system as the date the veteran had asked for. The VA is now accusing staffers of gaming the system while various staffers have come forward to blow the whistle on the VA for hiding lists and using scheduling tricks.
A 2010 memo from VA Deputy Undersecretary for Health Administrative Operations, William Schoenhard, lists a number of scheduling tactics used by VA employees to falsely portray the wait time to federal officials. One example, aside from the method explained by Turner above, includes offering a patient an appointment that is greater than thirty days away, but then recording the document as being greater than thirty days per the patient’s request. In addition to the dozen scheduling manipulation methods highlighted in the memo, the deputy undersecretary also cautioned that VA hospital employees had numerous ways to game the system. The deputy undersecretary said of the memo, “Do not consider this list a full description of all current possibilities of inappropriate scheduling practices that need to be addressed. These practices will not be tolerated.”
In response to the allegations of misconduct at numerous VA hospitals around the country Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered on May 28, 2014, a 90-day review of the military health system, which will be led by the Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs, Jonathan Woodson. That same day, the acting Inspector General for the VA, Richard J. Griffin, released a statement saying that its review of VA clinics has confirmed “inappropriate scheduling practices [as] systematic” throughout the Veterans Health Administration. Griffin, who previously called for a review of 26 facilities, has now called for a review of 42 total facilities in the investigation. In May, Griffin testified to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that his office was working alongside the Department of Justice to “determine any conduct that we discover that merits criminal prosecution.”
On Capitol Hill, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) also hinted that he would like to see Shinseki resign, but the Senator hesitated to state his desire so openly. Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the breadth of the scandal, Senator McCain stated, “Every other VA is probably going to have these same influences on them, because they were trying to comply with guidelines that were laid down from the headquarters of VA which they couldn’t meet.” Bowing to the pressure from lawmakers and critics, Shinseki resigned from his role as Veteran Affairs Secretary on May 30, 2014. Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson has promised to release the exact number of veterans on the secret waitlists, which he has stated is well over 100,000 veterans.
With veterans of the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq now coming home and needing treatment alongside the other veterans of our armed services, the VA hospitals should be protecting and healing these men and women but are instead harming them through secret waitlists and bureaucratic mismanagement. Who will protect the veterans, the guardians of our freedom, when our own VA has bungled the task? Perhaps Congress will protect them.
On May 21, 2014, the House overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 390 to 33 the VA Management Accountability Act (H.R. 4031). This bill amends title 38 U.S.C. and gives the VA secretary more authority to fire employees of the Senior Executive Service who fail to provide quality service to veterans. The bill requires the VA secretary to give a notice of removal to the Veterans’ Affairs Committees in Congress within 30 days of removing an individual. In addition to the broad bipartisan support in the House, others including the 2.4 million members of the American Legion and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America also support the bill. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blocked the bill, but he says that the Senate will take it up again later this summer. The House has acted to protect our veterans from secret waitlists and mismanagement that has allegedly cost lives. Hopefully, our veterans do not have to wait any longer for the Senate to do the same.