WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn released a comprehensive report Tuesday detailing numerous problems within the Veterans Affairs Department and called again for a policy that would allow veterans to receive reimbursed care from private physicians and hospitals.
The lengthy report — which combines findings from inspector general and media investigations with research by Coburn’s staff — also recommends that the VA fire “vindictive administrators” who take action against department whistleblowers.
“For decades, the VA has silenced, harassed, and retaliated against whistleblowers who were merely trying to fulfill the commitment to veterans that is the mission of the VA,” Coburn says in the report.
“Meanwhile others who cooked the books or abused their positions received financial bonuses and other rewards. This inverse scale of rewards and punishment must end.”
Coburn, R-Muskogee, released the report a day after the U.S. Special Counsel’s office sent President Barack Obama a letter detailing “some troubling patterns of responses” by the VA to whistleblower allegations.
According to the letter, from Carolyn N. Lerner, schedulers at a VA facility in Fort Collins, Colo., “were instructed to alter wait times (for appointments) to make their waiting periods look shorter.”
The special counsel’s office is investigating allegations that two schedulers were reassigned to Wyoming for not complying with instructions to “zero out” wait times, Lerner told Obama.
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously.”
“As I told our workforce, intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation in law, policy, or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable,” Gibson said.
Wide range of problems
Coburn’s report covers a wide range of medical and administrative problems at the VA; many of those problems have existed for decades, the report says, and have been addressed with legislaton previously.
Coburn says Congress doesn’t follow up to make sure the VA is following the law and ensuring quality care.
Coburn is now a key player in legislation aimed at streamlining the VA bureaucracy, making it easier to fire managers and temporarily allowing veterans to seek care outside of the system under certain circumstances.
“As a senator, I’m determined to address the structural challenges of the Department of Veterans Affairs so we can end this national disgrace and improve quality and access to health care for our veterans,” Coburn said.
“Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA’s misconduct and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice. As is typical with any bureaucracy, the excuse for not being able to meet goals is a lack of resources. But this is not the case at the VA where spending has increased rapidly in recent years,” Coburn said.
More freedom to see private doctors. “If they choose, veterans should be able to schedule a check-up with a hometown doctor instead of driving hours to the nearest VA medical facility or waiting months until a VA doctor is available,” the report states. “VA should pay non-VA providers the Medicare rate for services.”
Public disclosure of the ratings given by the VA to its hospitals. “The VA should be required to post online — while protecting patient personal information — updated statistics regarding quality of care, infection rates, acute care mortality rates, and patient safety as well as up to date waiting times regarding when an appointment can be made to see a doctor,” Coburn said.
Veterans with combat-related disabilities should be the priority. “A former POW who was disabled by a war injury with modest income should not have to wait months to access a VA doctor behind others with private insurance, higher incomes and nonservice related injuries,” the report states.
VA doctors have about half the workload of private physicians and need to see more patients. “Setting such expectations is not intended to reduce the amount of time doctors spend with a patient to provide necessary care or set an arbitrary number of patients a doctor must meet as a daily quota. It is intended to ensure greater and timely access to care for more veterans and to improve Department resource allocation and hiring decisions,” the report states.