- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Senators said Tuesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs must change its culture, not just improve access to timely and high-quality health care for veterans.

“No matter what steps VA takes to address the challenges it faces delivering health care, VA will not be able to move forward if this corrosive culture is not addressed,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald and Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general for the VA, testified before the committee about a final report on veterans care in Phoenix released late last month. The investigation was launched when a whistleblower alleged earlier this year that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care.

“The IG’s report provides troubling details about a facility that failed to meet our nation’s obligation to provide timely high quality care to veterans. What happened in Phoenix is inexcusable and must never happen again in any VA facility,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chair of the committee.

Mr. McDonald said opening up the culture of the VA to encourage accountability and transparency will be a difficult task, but that he will work to achieve it through interactions with employees and yearly recommitments to the VA’s mission.

“Changing the culture is probably one of the most difficult leadership challenges whether in the private sector or the public sector,” he said. “We need to get every employee involved.”

Mr. Griffin blamed the problems at the VA on “a failure of leadership,” saying that the policies in place were good but not followed.

“I think you have a culture where it’s OK to disregard directives from the most senior people in the administration. You need to come to understand that is not acceptable behavior,” he said.

While the report could not directly link the patient to poor care, it did find systemic scheduling problems, delayed care and poor mental health care. Previous reports have found that many of these problems extend beyond Phoenix throughout the VA health care system.

“These 45 cases discussed in the report reflect unacceptable and troubling issues in follow-up, coordination, quality and continuity of care,” Mr. Griffin said at the hearing.

“Immediate and substantive changes are needed,” he later added.

While the deaths could not be linked to poor care, Mr. McDonald still acknowledged that the report showed failures of the VA and apologized to veterans who had been effected by delays.

“Let me begin by offering my personal apologies to all veterans who experienced unacceptable delays in receiving care,” he said. “It’s clear that we failed in that respect.”

The report on Phoenix found that schedulers were placing patients on a secret wait list, where veterans could possibly be forgotten about and never receive the appointment they requested.

As of Sept. 5, there are only 10 veterans on the “iconic electronic wait list” in Phoenix, Mr. McDonald said.

The report has recently come under fire for allegedly being edited by the VA, but Mr. Griffin defended the inspector general’s independence, saying that while the report is submitted to the department for review, only facts that the investigation may have missed would be added.

“We do not accept from the department or from anyone else a dictated response that’s related to opinion instead of fact,” he said.

The IG is still investigating 93 facilities, about a quarter of which been found to have any data or scheduling manipulation, Mr. Griffin said. He said he hoped they would be completed by the end of the year.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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