The controversy over the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap may have knocked the Veterans Affairs Department scandal off the front pages, but a new report issued Monday revealing that more than 100,000 veterans waited excessively for health care put it back in the spotlight — where it is likely to stay for some time.
It also makes finding a top-notch replacement for former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki more critical and difficult. Few wanted the job after the first wave of bad news. The report, coupled with the withdrawal of Toby Cosgrove, head of the Cleveland Clinic and considered a front-runner to replace Shinseki, from consideration amid revelations that the Cleveland Clinic had similar problems of its own, could make it impossible.
The search for Shinseki’s successor is another source of embarrassment for President Barack Obama as Cosgrove’s withdrawal has critics and veterans questioning the administration’s vetting process.
Obama "will need to address the apparent and embarrassing incompetence of his staff regarding its inability to properly vet candidates in [a] timely manner," Benjamin Krause wrote in a blog post on the DisabledVeterans.org website on Monday, June 9. "The second, and most difficult, is that he will need to address the fact that being an executive at VA is a very unpopular career choice in the middle of a major scandal."
No one expected good news from the internal VA audit unveiled Monday, least of all members of Congress.
Even before the audit was released, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced it was holding an oversight hearing Monday evening, with an unusual 7:30 p.m. start time, demonstrating how miffed lawmakers are. And also ahead of the report, the House leadership scheduled a Monday evening vote for one of myriad VA reform bills to spring up since news of blatant fraud and dysfunction at a VA facility in Arizona surfaced two months ago.
The House didn’t limit is reaction to one day. On Tuesday, it passed a just-introduced bill from House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) directing the VA secretary to go outside the system to alleviate the appointments backlog.
Monday evening, the House approved a measure sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) that would require the VA’s inspector general (IG) to determine whether the VA has appropriately responded to complaints in IG reports related to "VA public health or safety" and reduce the burden on supervisors when it is necessary to fire bad employees.
Miller’s reaction to the audit Monday also showed his support for Benishek’s bill.
"The only way to rid the department of this widespread dishonesty and duplicity is to pull it out by the roots," Miller stated. He urged the Senate to take up another House-passed bill that would authorize the VA secretary to immediately fire failing executives, such as supervisors who ordered subordinates to fudge waiting-list data to conceal the wait time for patients who scheduled an appointment.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden also called for a new wave of firings as many of the violations occurred in his home state of Oregon. "Those who cooked the books at VA facilities or lied to Congress as it attempted to conduct oversight should be fired immediately and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," he said.
According to the audit, more than 100,000 veterans experienced long waiting times for medical appointments at facilities around the country, and an additional 64,000 who signed up for VA health care in the last 10 years have never had appointments with a doctor.
The report was the first nationwide assessment of the VA’s dysfunctional waiting-list practices, which have scandalized the department after reports surfaced in April that several veterans died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix facility.
The audit, which examined 731 VA hospitals and clinics, reported mass confusion about record-keeping practices and exposed pressure at some facilities to "utilize unofficial lists or engage in inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable." Thirteen percent of surveyed VA schedulers said they were instructed to falsify appointment dates in order to satisfy internal waiting-time goals that were connected to bonuses. It also said that the VA’s 14-day scheduling goal for patients was "unattainable," which led employees to game the system.
As a result, the VA’s acting secretary, Sloan Gibson, announced a slew of reforms on Monday, including an end to the 14-day scheduling goal, new patient surveys for more real-time location-sensitive feedback, and a hiring freeze for VA headquarters and the 21 regional health-care offices around the country. "It is our duty and our privilege to provide veterans the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice," Gibson said in a statement. "We must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing VA health care."
Testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday, Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, challenged the VA to initiate a nationwide review of veterans on waiting lists to ensure that they’re being seen in a time that corresponds to the severity of their illness. Griffin also called on the department to provide immediate care to the 1,700 veterans identified by the inspector general as not being on existing waiting lists.
* This story has been updated.