It shouldn’t take a scandal to get Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to attack the outrageous patient wait times that may have cost several dozen veterans their lives.
But now that the country’s attention is focused on the VA, Congress and the VA should act swiftly and decisively to resolve the long-simmering issues behind the excessive wait times
In particular, Congress should embrace measures that would give veterans the option to see a private physician when wait times for a VA appointment exceed 30 days. That’s part of a VA health care overhaul proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
His bill also makes it easier for the VA secretary to remove senior officials for poor performance, expedites the hiring of doctors and nurses and mandates a software upgrade for the VA’s patient-scheduling system.
In addition to these administrative reforms, the Department of Justice should heed the call by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake to open a criminal investigation into the apparent manipulation of data related to wait times at VA offices. If VA staffers cooked the books to gain bonuses or salary increases, they should be prosecuted.
Closer to home, as the Tribune’s Howard Altman reports, officials at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital have instructed the staff to contact all veterans with wait times exceeding 90 days to assess whether there is an immediate need. And they are considering options to increase patient capacity that include operating Saturday clinics and extending daily hours of operation.
The sudden urgency is at once reassuring and maddening. These patient delays have been known for years. As The Washington Post reports, no fewer than 19 reports about delays and scheduling issues have been issued since 2005.
But recent reports that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting care at a VA facility in Arizona, and that the facility may have orchestrated a cover-up of the wait times, have touched off a firestorm that could finally result in a much-needed overhaul.
In addition to the Sanders bill, bills by McCain and Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, are expected to be filed soon. McCain says he thinks veterans should have more opportunities to see private physicians.
“Why should a veteran have to get into a van and ride three hours to get to Phoenix in order to have routine medical care taken care of? Why doesn’t that veteran have a card and go to the caregiver that he or she needs and wants?”
There are nearly 9 million enrollees in the VA health care system. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the expanded access to coverage for Agent Orange victims and combat distress disorders, have brought a flood of claims. It only makes sense that veterans be given access to private physicians when wait times increase.
VA officials should have responded to the delays long ago, and Congress should have been more in tune to the complaints and critical reports being produced about patient wait times. Now that the curtain has been raised on the extent of the problem, there is no excuse for failing to act in a manner that fixes this mess once and for all.