The Department of Veterans Affairs failures did not slow down at the end of 2017. The last few months of the year were rife with data manipulation, malpractice, wasted funds and more unofficial wait lists.
A former employee at the Memphis VA referred to the hospital as a “house of horrors.” The facility has earned itself a one-star rating from the VA. Allegations against it include malpractice leading to a leg amputation and hundreds of threats to patient safety.
Staff at the Northpoint, New York VA were accused of treating veterans as “cash cows.” By contacting and reconnecting with veterans who hadn’t visited the facility in over a year, staffers were able to increase their “billable visits.” Supervisors allegedly instructed employees to reach out to more than 2,000 veterans to discuss their medical care under a “patient engagement project” which served to secure and increase the facility’s funding.
The Office of Inspector General sent a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin detailing multiple issues within the Veterans Choice Program. The OIG stated “making accurate and timely payments in CP has proven to be a significant challenge.” That challenge has cost the VA tens of millions of dollars.
The Choice Program is tasked with managing veteran care outside the VA, but constantly runs out of funding to do so. Targeting funding mismanagement could be a good step towards ensuring the program functions properly.
October was arguably the worst month for the VA. USA Today reported the VA covered up mistakes made by facility doctors and withheld information on dozens of employee mistakes. A podiatrist at the Togus VA facility in Maine was alleged to have constantly performed substandard work on his patients. More than 216 patients were potentially or probably harmed according to the report, and the VA took years to inform patients of the possible malpractice.
Close by in Massachusetts, a veteran died at a VA facility while his attending nurse allegedly played video games. The patient was to be checked on a regular schedule throughout the night, but reports state his nurse sat at her computer all night.
Last year the VA was all but forced to begin sharing its rating data for all VA hospitals after USA Today reported that the data existed. A year later, the data shows that almost nothing has changed as multiple facilities kept their one-star ratings.
In 2014, the OIG reported that the Phoenix VA had been keeping secret wait lists to hide true wait times at the hospital. Forty veterans died while on these secret waitlists waiting for appointments. Despite this scandal, OIG found that the Eastern Colorado Health Care System was tracking mental health appointments with unofficial waitlists just last year. Mismanaged scheduling led to the denial of nearly 210 consults through the Veterans Choice Program.
The Government Accountability Office confirmed reports from October that the VA was failing to report fired and disciplined doctors to the national database and state licensing boards. By neglecting to report these doctors, the VA enables them to gain employment in the private sector without their employer knowing of their past actions.
Not only did the VA fail to report poorly-performing doctors; it knowingly hired ones with bad records. Multiple doctors with troubled pasts including malpractice suits, misconduct and even felonies, have been hired by the VA with prior knowledge of their actions. USA Today cites a neurosurgeon who had malpractice suits in two states but obtained a job at the VA anyway. Multiple patients and families have since accused him of malpractice at the VA.
In many ways, 2017 was typical of what we’ve come to expect from the VA – wasted funding, lack of accountability and incentive to perform well, misbehavior and mismanagement indicative of government-run programs.
But 2017 could prove to be a turning point for the VA. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was an important step in cleaning up the VA’s irresponsible culture, and Congress is in serious discussions on a bill that would redesign the Veterans Choice Program to better serve veterans. Let’s hope that 2018 brings with it far fewer complaints about the VA and far more stories of veterans getting the care they’ve earned when they need it.