WASHINGTON (AP) — United and eager to respond to a national uproar, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday to make it easier for patients enduring long waits for care at Veterans Affairs facilities to get VA-paid treatment from local doctors.
The 421-0 vote was Congress’ strongest response yet to the outcry over backlogs and falsified data at the beleaguered agency. Senate leaders plan debate soon on a similar, broader package that has also drawn bipartisan support, underscoring how politically toxic it could be for lawmakers to be seen as ignoring the problem.
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has been reeling from mounting evidence that workers fabricated statistics on patients’ waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. A VA audit this week showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments.
“I cannot state it strongly enough – this is a national disgrace,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chief author of the legislation.
The House bill would let veterans facing long delays for appointments or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility to choose to get care from non-agency providers for the next two years. A relative few vets already have that option for outside care, and this would expand the offer.
The bill also would ban bonuses for all VA employees through 2016 and require an independent audit of agency health care. An earlier House-passed bill would make it easier to fire top VA officials.
Miller said VA would save $400 million annually by eliminating bonuses, money the agency could use for expanded care at its centers.
“More than 100,000 veterans in Hawaii and across the country are waiting to see a doctor, and tens of thousands of them are simply lost in the bureaucracy,” said Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. “The Veterans Access to Care Act is a first step toward fixing the VA’s scheduling problems, but it does not go far enough to provide the flexibility for veterans to seek medical care outside the VA system. Even with this bill, veterans will still face obstacles to receiving care and would only be able to seek private healthcare if their wait time exceeds VA’s arbitrary wait time goals.
“Our veterans need care now. Last week, I called on President Obama to use his executive power to immediately allow veterans to receive care from private healthcare providers in their community, using their VA identification card. I will also be introducing legislation to do the same.”
“This bill isn’t perfect,” said fellow Representative Colleen Hanabusa. “I have serious doubts about some provisions, like the one that would eliminate incentives to hire doctors and nurses to help fix the VA’s personnel issues.”
The controversy led Eric Shinseki to resign as head of the VA on May 30, but the situation remains a continuing embarrassment for President Barack Obama and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
Monday night, a top VA official told the veterans committee that there is “an integrity issue here among some of our leaders.”
Philip Matkovsky, who helps oversee the VA’s administrative operations, said of patients’ long waits and efforts to hide them, “It is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones.”
Matkovsky did not specify which VA officials had questionable integrity. The agency has started removing top officials at its medical facility in Phoenix, a focal point of the department’s problems, and investigators have found indications of long waits and falsified records of patients’ appointments at many other facilities.
Asked by panel chairman Miller whether officials at the agency’s main office had ordered manipulation of patients’ data, Matkovsky said he was not aware of that, adding, “I certainly hope they have not.”
On Monday, the VA released an internal audit showing more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. It also found that over the past decade, nearly 64,000 newly enrolled veterans requesting appointments never got them, though it was unclear how many still wanted VA care.
The audit covered 731 VA medical facilities. It said 13 percent of scheduling employees said they’d been instructed to enter falsified appointment dates, and 8 percent used unofficial appointment lists, both practices aimed at improving agency statistics on patient wait times.
As a result, the agency said it was ordering further investigations at 112 locations where interviews revealed indications of fabricated scheduling data or of supervisors ordering falsified lists.