House lawmakers expressed doubts Monday night that the Department of Veterans Affairs has the ability to restore its health care system.
One congressman said part of the problem is that VA officials are spearheading efforts to fix problems they ignored, while another pointed out that positive reports of progress are coming in from the same facilities with a history of manipulating data.
"We need to be convinced [of any improvements] because we're asking them to get us out of the ditch by the same people who drove us into the ditch," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., told Dr. Thomas Lynch, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for VA clinical operations.
But even as House Veterans Affairs Committee members questioned data indicating signs of improvement, a new report emerged that staff at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, altered records of deceased veterans who had died awaiting care.
The Phoenix facility is where the ongoing patient wait-times scandal first broke in April, when whistleblowers told CNN that staff kept a secret list of veterans waiting for a doctor appointment. It has since been confirmed that 35 veterans on the list died before getting an appointment.
On Monday night CNN quoted appointments scheduling clerk Pauline DeWenter as saying hospital records of deceased veterans were changed in order to hide how many people died while waiting for care.
Some of the changes were made following CNN's April report, she told the network.
Some 70 VA hospitals and clinics are currently under investigation by the VA's Inspector General, who is passing relevant information to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
VA officials have conceded that there have been leadership failures and admitted that information coming in from the field was in some cases deliberately manipulated.
In May, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, under secretary for health, and a short time later tendered his own resignation to President Obama after VA investigators confirmed many of the Phoenix allegations and found the problems to be systemic throughout VA.
On Monday morning, the Office of Special Counsel reported to Obama that the VA officials routinely dismissed complaints raised by whistleblowers rather than investigate and act on them.
During his testimony before the House committee Monday night, Lynch testified that the VA was making progress in adopting industry-accepted standards for assessing productivity and efficiency among its specialty care physicians, and would be doing the same for primary care doctors.
He also said VA will use the same "results-oriented approach" to deal with the challenges it is facing in measuring and maximizing its clinical capacity in order to improve access to care.
But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, took issue with testimony that progress being reported is based on data from VA medical centers and clinics. Huelskamp pointed out that many facilities are currently under investigation for allegedly manipulating patient wait times.
"How can you assure me that the numbers you give me here can be trusted?" Huelskamp asked
"Point well taken," Lynch replied. Lynch said he would look into exactly how VA's central office is establishing the integrity of the data coming in from the field and report it to Huelskamp.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said steps the VA is now taking to get into health care thousands of veterans found to be experiencing lengthy delays could have been done at any time before.
Sending more veterans into community care if necessary, holding clinic hours at night and on weekends, reviewing in-house capacity to see where access can be improved are among the actions VA has taken as part of its Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.
"Each of these actions should have been operational components of regular VA business long before now and VA had statutory authority to use these options previously," said Miller, who chairs the veterans' affairs panel.
"We know that at least thirty-five veterans in the Phoenix-area alone died while waiting to receive VA care – though I suspect that that number may rise in the coming weeks and months.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org