Dr. David Shulkin used his first public statement as the new Veterans Affairs Department secretary on Thursday to pledge management reforms that would remove the VA from a government agency's "high risk list" for waste, fraud and abuse.
"We will implement a plan that directly addresses these risks by building on the progress we have already made," Shulkin said in response to a Government Accountability Office report naming the VA as a "high risk" agency in its treatment of veterans, handling of claims and efforts to lower wait times.
"VA has been working hard to function as an integrated enterprise," Shulkin said, "and I will continue to build upon the progress we've made since 2015 and accelerate the changes required to meet all of GAO's criteria for removal from the high risk list."
The department was among a number of agencies, including the Defense Department, listed by government auditors as high risk because of a wide range of management issues. The GAO's biennial high risk report first listed the VA in 2015; the latest report cited a "lack of progress" by the department in implementing necessary reforms.
The GAO report said improvements cited by the VA didn't go far enough to rate removal from the high risk list this year and noted ongoing issues with accountability, information technology, staff training, ambiguous policies and cost efficiency.
The report raised concerns in the House and Senate on how the VA is allocating funding to initiate reforms.
"While this information is not new, it certainly underscores that the Veterans Health Administration has not made enough progress towards providing quality care for our veterans," said Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
"As I've said time and time again, VA should have the resources necessary to serve veterans, but we must also take a close look at how the department is allocating the resources they've been entrusted," Roe said in a statement.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and ranking member of the panel, said, "It is imperative that VA and VHA leaders take this report seriously and act without delay to ensure veterans have the quality health care they expect and deserve."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the GAO report provides more evidence that veterans need the opportunity to choose private care over the VA.
"This alarming report underscores the VA's inability to meet its core mission and why Congress must act to continue to allow every veteran to have a choice in their care," McCain said in a statement.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, Shulkin said that full privatization of the VA would not happen "under my watch," but said he was open to providing more choice when it would improve care.
In its report, the GAO said, "Every 2 years, we examine federal programs and operations that are especially vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformative change -- our High Risk List."
In response to its initial designation as a high risk agency in 2015, "VA developed an action plan for addressing its high-risk designation, but the plan describes many planned outcomes with overly ambitious deadlines for completion," the GAO report said.
"We are concerned about the lack of root cause analyses for most areas of concern, and the lack of clear metrics and needed resources for achieving stated outcomes," the GAO said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.