Lawmakers call for tighter grip on VA hospitals, understaffing issues affecting local veterans

WASHINGTON -- The chairmen of House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees on Sunday decried long waits and backlogs at the nations VA hospitals but stopped short of calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

"You've got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable, that is shooting for goals, goals that are not helping the veterans," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House panel

"I think some people may by cooking the books" to suggest waiting times are shorter that they actually are, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the counterpart Senate committee.

Both chairmen were interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union."

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the Justice Department "has to be involved." He said there is "credible and specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing across the country" at VA hospitals.

"We're not rushing to judgment. But the Department of Justice can convene a grand jury, if necessary," Blumenthal said.

RELATED: IG: Phoenix VA hospital missed care for 1,700 vets

Lawmakers from both parties have pressed for policy changes and better management as the Department of Veterans Affairs confronts allegations about treatment delays and falsified records at VA centers around the country. The program serves nearly 9 million veterans.

Some veterans say they're happy with the coverage at the medical services provided.

One of them is Rob Snyder.

"I know that different organizations, different sites have had their issues, but the Cincinnati one, from everyone I talked to, they've always been very, very happy with the one here," said Snyder who just got back from Afghanistan last month he's due to start physical therapy for a war injury.

But Brad Hoffmeister, an Army veteran from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, visited the Cincinnati VA Wednesday night to receive medical help and wasn't seen by a doctor for nearly five hours.

Hoffmeister suffered a knee injury in an Army training exercise eight years ago and has been dealing with the medical issues ever since.

"I can't stand for long periods of time," Hoffmeister said. "I can't move too often. When I do, I really feel the pain."

He said the injury forced him to retire as a corrections officer and now he's working to run his own business. But the care for his knee is causing him as much pain as the injury itself.

"It's starting to affect my business," Hoffmeister said. "Trying to get doctor appointments and then they don't have appointments available at the times I can get here."

The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Cincinnati's VA hospital had 10 wrongful care claims from 2002 to 2010.

The local VA paid families more than $2 million for those claims.

The Office of the Inspector General is launching an audit of VA hospitals nationwide, which includes Cincinnati's facility.

"On May 27 through June 3, they're reviewing our community based outpatient clinic," said local VA spokesperson Denise Kerr, adding that the primary care, specialty care and mental health were audited May 13.

Kerr said despite widespread allegations, the staff at the medical facility on Vine Street is "confident" in the quality of their operations.

"We look forward to seeing what the results are and we are confident that we have a very good system here," she said.

President Barack Obama did not mention the VA issue in a speech on Sunday to U.S. troops in Afghanistan during a surprise visit.

"The VA really didn't factor into the planning for the trip at all," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser. "The VA is obviously something he's going to continue to work on very hard in the coming days and weeks back home as well."

Meanwhile, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a pre-recorded interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week," called the VA's current problems "outrageous - if the allegations are documented and proven. And I suspect some of them will be."

"They've got to be held accountable," Dempsey said, adding that Shinseki "has made it very clear that they will be held accountable,"

The department's inspector general says 26 VA facilities are under investigation, including the Phoenix VA hospital, where a former clinic director says as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment.

Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care. An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment.

The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.

"You know, if we are going to send people off to war, we have a solemn promise to make

sure that when they come home, we are going to take care of them," Sanders said.

The two committee chairmen appeared a day after the Obama administration agreed to recommendations from lawmakers in both parties and said it would allow more veterans to get care at private hospitals to help ease pressure on backlogged VA hospitals dealing with patients from the wars on terrorism as well as treating old soldiers from prior conflicts including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem is not a lack of resources, said Miller. "If money was the issue, this problem would have been solved a long time ago. VA is not using the resources that they're provided appropriately."

The VA says it is taking some of the pressure off its hospital system by allowing more veterans to be treated at private hospitals.

The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. That amounts to about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's health care arm.

It was not clear how much the new initiative would cost, Dillon said.

Said Sanders: "I think it's unfair to blame Shinseki for all the problems. Can he do better? Yes."

WHERE CAN VETERANS SEEK HEALTH CARE?

The Veterans Health Administration, by far the VA's largest arm, operates about 1,700 health care sites, including medical centers, community clinics and counseling centers. A system that traces its roots to Philadelphia's Naval Home, built to provide medical care for disabled veterans in 1812, has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930 to 150 medical centers, with at least one in each state, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Reforms in the 1990s saw a shift to decentralization and from a focus on inpatient to outpatient care, along with an emphasis on measuring performance. In 2003, a nationwide Web-based portal was launched to help vets track their records and give them access to health information.

One medical center in Washington, D.C., has a staff of 1,700 and treats more than 500,000 outpatients every year. Another in Denver will soon be replaced by a multimillion-dollar complex that has run into construction delays and cost overruns. After the recent allegations, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced more veterans will be able to get care at private hospitals and clinics.

WHO PROVIDES CARE?

The VA health system has more than 275,000 fulltime employees. Its specialists conduct research in such areas as PTSD, prosthetics, spinal-cord injury and exposure to Agent Orange.

WHO IS ELIGIBLE?

Veterans of any military branch, unless they were dishonorably discharged, as well as reservists and National Guard members in some cases. Dependents and children of veterans also can receive benefits. In most cases, veterans must apply for enrollment. Nearly 9 million - up from just under 8 million in 2008 - are enrolled in a program that is struggling to keep up with the number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, while Vietnam veterans need more care as they age. The VA system saw 5.5 million patients in 2008; that grew to 6.5 million in 2012-2013.

The VA says its commitment to providing better care increased a disability claims backlog but that it hopes to eliminate the backlog in 2015. It processed about 1 million claims a year from 2010 to 2013.

The VA estimates the U.S. has more than 21 million veterans, men and women who fought in World War II through the war on terror. Vietnam War veterans are the largest group, followed by Gulf War veterans. While most today are white men, that is changing, with women expected to make up a fifth of the veteran population and nonwhites a third in 30 years. The changes will present the VA with new challenges in terms of reaching vets and diversifying the services offered.

IS IT FREE?

Health care is free for some veterans, including those whose incomes are low, former prisoners of war and those with severe disabilities as a result of their service. Veterans who served in a combat zone are eligible for free VA hospital care, outpatient services and nursing home care for two years after leaving active duty because of an illness or injury that may be linked to service. For others, co-pay charges are $15 for a basic visit and $50 to see a specialist such as a surgeon or optometrist or for certain tests. The co-pay for a stay at the hospital can be as low as $236 for the first 90 days.

WHAT DOES IT COST THE US?

The VA's medical care budget was about $55.6 billion in fiscal year 2013 and is estimated at about $57.3 billion this year. The 2015 estimate is nearly $60 billion.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly and WCPO reporter Scott Wegener contributed to this report.

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