June 12, 2014

Our View: Congress takes first step to fix VA mess

Bill is designed to cut outrageous waits for veterans seeking health care.

The waits for veterans to receive medical care really were that bad – so bad that Congress responded this week with lightning speed.

The resulting legislation is a good start to fix a Department of Veterans Affairs health care system that has deep and widespread flaws.

The first comprehensive review of the system confirmed that there are long lines and widespread scheduling abuses across the country, not just in Phoenix and other cities where VA officials were cooking the books to hide the problems. Released on Monday, the audit found that more than 57,000 new patients have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments and that another 64,000 over the past 10 years never got the appointments they requested.

Facing that unacceptable reality, Congress demonstrated rare bipartisan resolve. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 93-3 to quickly improve access to care by letting the VA hire hundreds more doctors and nurses; giving the VA money to lease 26 major medical facilities, including ones in Chico, Chula Vista, Redding and San Diego; and allowing veterans in many cases to receive VA-paid treatment from outside doctors.

Backed by President Barack Obama, the bill would also make it easier to fire senior VA officials, would establish commissions to look for long-term solutions to veterans’ medical care, and would require the Department of Health and Human Services to rate VA hospitals and make the information available to the public.

On a 426-0 vote Tuesday, the House passed a bill with similar policies, but with far less money attached – $620 million over three years, compared to $35 billion in the Senate version. Leaders should quickly work out a compromise and get the measure to the president’s desk.

Solving this mess can’t come soon enough. Officials also need to move swiftly to hold VA employees accountable. The FBI has opened a criminal investigation, initially focused in Phoenix, where the VA acknowledges that at least 35 veterans died while waiting for medical treatment.

The review of 731 VA medical facilities found that the longest waits were in Honolulu (145 days for primary care), Harlingen, Texas, (145 days for specialist care) and Durham, N.C. (104 days for mental health care).

Fortunately, the waits were not as outrageous in California, where more veterans live than in any other state. The average wait time for new patients seeking primary care was about 43 days in the Northern California VA health care system, which stretches from Redding through Sacramento to Oakland. It was 56 days for the greater Los Angeles VA health care system, 44 days for both Loma Linda and San Diego, 42 days for the Palo Alto VA, 34 days for Long Beach, 30 days for San Francisco and 25 days in the Fresno-based network, according to the audit.

The audit, however, did flag the VA facilities in Escondido, Imperial Valley, Livermore, Yuba City and Sepulveda in Los Angeles for further review.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who replaced Eric Shinseki after he resigned under pressure May 30, has been properly engaged. The VA has contacted 50,000 vets to get them off waiting lists. Gibson has met with advocacy groups and visited VA facilities across the country.

But this systemic problem is going to take time and persistent attention. Getting the scandal off the front pages isn’t enough.

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