Veterans’ Three-Month Wait for Doctors Pressures Congress

Another report of delays in medical care for U.S. military veterans -- this one showing 57,400 have waited more than three months to see a doctor -- is adding pressure on Congress to come up with a legislative fix.

An internal audit released yesterday by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that an additional 63,900 veterans who enrolled in the VA health system in the past 10 years haven’t received doctors’ appointments. The report comes as the Senate is set to advance bipartisan legislation to revamp the system.

“I hope we can bring it to the floor in the next 24 hours, 48 hours at most,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters today. “It’s urgent that we get this done.”

The audit broadened the scope of the VA’s failings, adding to the difficulty President Barack Obama may have in finding someone new to oversee the department and its $160 billion budget, the fifth largest of any federal agency. His previous secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned last month. Cleveland Clinic Chief Executive Officer Delos “Toby” Cosgrove took himself out of the running on June 7.

“This is a large task,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday. “There’s no sugar-coating that.”

Legislative Response

The Senate may vote as soon as this week on a bill released today that would spend more than $1.5 billion, providing money to lease 26 new medical facilities and hire more doctors and nurses.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called for the Senate to move quickly on the measure, which has bipartisan support, and predicted its passage.

“I think we’ll get there,” McConnell said today from the Senate floor.

Though House Republicans blame Obama for the VA’s difficulties, they are responding to the pressure by promoting a dozen veterans-related bills that passed in recent months and await Senate action. Those include a proposal to make it easier to dismiss VA officials for misconduct and another that would freeze bonuses for senior VA officials through fiscal 2018.

The House today passed, 426-0, a bill proposed by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, to expand access to health care for veterans. The measure, H.R. 4810, is similar to the bipartisan proposal by Senators Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Arizona Republican John McCain.

Non-VA Facilities

Like the Senate proposal, the House plan would create a two-year pilot program requiring the VA to reimburse non-VA facilities that provide medical care for veterans who live at least 40 miles from a facility or can’t schedule an appointment within about two weeks.

“We have a systemic failure of an entire department of our government,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters in Washington today.

About half of the 1.9 million troops discharged after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan came back to the U.S. in need of medical care, VA data show. Many of those veterans have been stymied by the Veterans Health Administration, the country’s largest integrated health system, that hid lengthy wait times for medical care.

‘Top Priority’

Earnest said finding new leadership for the VA was “a top priority.”

House Republican leaders continue to point the finger at Obama for the health-care delays. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say the president deserves at least some blame, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week.

“This is the biggest health-care scandal in the VA’s history, and America deserves to know whether the president is committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right,” Miller said in the weekly Republican address on June 7. “So while the House and Senate work together to address these crises, we will also hold the president accountable.”

At least 18 veterans died while awaiting medical care in Phoenix, Sloan Gibson, acting Veterans Affairs secretary, has said. Miller has said there were as many as 40 deaths.

Miller and other lawmakers have blamed VA performance goals for motivating hospital staff to falsify official waiting lists. Gibson said last week that the department would remove the 14-day scheduling goal as a measure for bonuses.

‘Demand’ Action

“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate actions,” Gibson said yesterday after release of the internal audit of 731 veterans’ medical facilities. “As of today, VA has contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off of wait lists and into clinics.”

Shinseki, Gibson’s predecessor, resigned May 30 after an earlier review found systemic mismanagement, treatment delays and falsified records throughout the veterans’ health system. The internal audit showed scheduling staff were instructed to manipulate appointments at 64 percent of VA facilities.

Before he quit, Shinseki, one of Obama’s original Cabinet members, fired Phoenix VA hospital leaders and halted performance bonuses for senior VA officials this year.

Obama made veterans’ care a top priority in his 2008 presidential campaign, saying, “America’s veterans deserve a president who will fight for them not just when it’s easy or convenient, but every hour of every day for the next four years.”

In accepting Shinseki’s resignation, Obama said the VA needs a new health information system and may need more doctors and nurses.

The backlog of veterans seeking disability claims stood at 344,000 in April, down from 611,000 a year earlier, according to a VA news release.

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