Scandal at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs – What Has Happened Since

What is the VA hospital scandal?

by Chris Pawlik – The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (“VA”) hospital scandal concerns prolonged systemic deficiencies with the administration of and management of VA-run healthcare networks throughout the United States. The VA is the largest healthcare network in the United States and is responsible for providing healthcare coverage and treatment for the United States’ veterans.

News of the scandal first became public in late April of 2014 when CNN journalists Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin reported on a six month investigation into unusually long wait times veterans routinely faced when scheduling appointments with their local VA healthcare provider. The CNN journalists’ investigation revealed that the Phoenix VA healthcare network maintained secret patient appointment schedule lists and that at least 40 veterans on the secret patient appointment schedule had died while waiting months for treatment with the Phoenix, Arizona VA healthcare network.

Congress was quick to react to the shocking report. Eric Shinseki, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, was called to testify before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in mid-May of 2014. At the same time Richard Griffin, the Inspector General of the VA, was beginning his investigation of the Phoenix VA healthcare network. When Griffin had concluded his report, both he and Shinseki were again called to testify before the Senate Veterans’ Affair Committee on May 28, 2014. During this later meeting Griffin revealed that his investigation into the Phoenix VA healthcare network had discovered nearly 1,700 veterans waiting for appointments that were not included within the electronic wait time tracking system that the VA had implemented beginning in 2012. Inspector General Griffin’s report further concluded that the Phoenix VA healthcare network’s practice of falsifying patient logs and of maintaining secret patient appointment schedules were not exclusive to the Phoenix VA healthcare network and were emblematic of a greater problem at VA hospitals throughout the United States.

As pressure from members of Congress and the White House continued to mount, Shinseki—who is himself a retired four star Army General—ultimately resigned his position as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs two days after his appearance before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

How did the VA hospital scandal happen?

Unfortunately, There may never be a clear answer to this question. Issues and irregularities with the VA’s handling of its patient wait lists were made known to the Obama administration in 2008 during the transition from the Bush administration. Even though the VA budget had skyrocketed over 90% from 2003 to 2014, the additional Congressional funding completely failed to stymie the major issues plaguing the VA healthcare network such as the continued reporting of falsified information and the continued use of secret patient appointment lists. While multiple warnings were issued to the VA in the years leading up to the CNN investigative report, these warnings did little to bring about meaningful change to how the VA’s healthcare networks operated throughout the United States. Certainly the VA scandal can be said to have resulted from a combination of bureaucratic waste, an extreme lack of judgment by some VA civil servants, and finger-wagging without substantive action. As a result, many veterans who may have otherwise been able to receive the treatment they needed senselessly paid the ultimate price with their lives.

What is being done to provide Veterans the adequate healthcare they deserve?

In the wake of the VA scandal both houses of Congress have sought to craft a bill that would expand veterans’ access to healthcare. The United States Senate first reached a bipartisan deal in early June 2014. By the end of July 2014, the House and the Senate had agreed on a compromise bill that aimed to improve the VA healthcare network. The House passed the bill on July 30, 2014. The Senate follow suit a day later and passed the bill on July 31, 2014. The Veterans’ Health Care Bill seeks to provide $16.3 billion in additional funding for the VA. Of the $16.3 billion, $5 billion will go towards recruiting medical staff, $10 billion will go to an emergency provision that will allow veterans experiencing substantial waits and who live far away from VA healthcare facilities to see a private doctor or other federally administered non-VA healthcare providers, and the remaining $1.3 billion will allow the VA to lease 27 new clinics in 18 states and in Puerto Rico.

The FBI has launched a formal criminal investigation at the behest of the Department of Justice regarding issues raised by Inspector General Richard Griffin’s report on the Phoenix VA healthcare network presented to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at the end of May.

Any outcome still remains to be seen.

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