Congress could provide relief for slammed VA system

The News TribuneJune 12, 2014 

Veterans Intensive PTSD (VIP) program members give the program high marks and form close bonds with other veterans during their stay at VA Puget Sound’s American Lake hospital in Lakewood.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, MAY

Since the Great Recession, most supervisors have become familiar with the call to “do more with less.”

But that doesn’t work when your job is providing health care to a suddenly increasing number of veterans at the same time you’re experiencing shortages of key personnel.

Add to that the demands by elected officials and bosses for the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce claims backlogs and provide treatment more quickly, and it probably should come as no surprise that the VA system is in crisis.

Nationwide, a VA audit published Monday found that more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait more than 90 days for their first VA appointment. The limit is supposed to be 14 days. And the audit found that about 13 percent of VA schedulers nationwide had been told by supervisors to manipulate data to hide how long it was really taking to schedule patient appointments. As they say, it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup. On Wednesday the FBI announced it has launched an investigation.

Now slightly different bills that passed both houses of Congress almost unanimously this week promise to provide at least some temporary relief for veterans.

The legislation would allow vets to seek help elsewhere, at government expense, if they can’t be seen at a VA facility within 30 days. That safety valve could take some of the pressure off VA hospitals, many of which have taken the shady way around their inability to promptly schedule appointments.

Although the VA Puget Sound hospitals in Lakewood and Seattle weren’t found to be falsifying records, they too have longer-than-desired average wait times for appointments: 59 days. Other problems cited by auditors: high nurse turnover, poor patient survival rates following acute care, urinary tract infections linked to catheters and too many hospitalizations of patients with pneumonia. VA Northwest also has among the worst call center performance in the system.

On the plus side, VA Puget Sound hospitals were among the best in linking patients to mental health resources and to preventing infections caused by antibiotic-resistant MRSA staph bacteria – a growing problem in health care settings.

The two bills in Congress have slight differences that need to be ironed out in conference. The most important provision – letting vets seek care outside the VA system if necessary – would only be in effect two years. But if that approach seems to be working well, Congress should consider making it a permanent part of the VA’s health care delivery.

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