Our veterans deserve better than VA’s ‘corrosive culture'

As a retired heart surgeon, I called for VA Secretary Erik Shinseki’s resignation after VA employees allowed patients to die on secret waiting lists.  Even President Obama now admits the VA has a “corrosive culture” “with poor management and communication” and a “history of retaliation” against whistleblowers.  As the VA struggles to prove its trustworthiness, Congress must scrutinize all the harms the department imposes on veterans, including years of damage to veterans’ financial credit ratings.

In February, a veteran came to my office with an unpaid bill exceeding $1000 for a hospital emergency room visit.  We found the VA had ignored federal law and refused to pay this bill for more than two years, damaging his financial credit rating and subjecting him to needless calls from collection agencies.  Even with congressional involvement, the VA still waited six months to clear the veteran’s balance with the credit agency.  To resolve the case, the VA forced my office to contact the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) 16 Network Director, Rica Lewis-Payton, who supervises the department in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. 

Lewis-Payton told my office she sends three letters a week to veterans in similar circumstances.  She said her VISN has one of the worst performances in the nation when it comes to payment delays for veterans’ emergency medical care.  At one time, only 26 percent of claims were paid timely and appropriately.  In Louisiana alone, VISN 16 owes tens of millions of dollars in unpaid claims for these services.  Hundreds of these claims are older than one year and some ambulance provider bills exceed three years.  Making matters worse, federal taxpayers are on the hook for growing interest penalties on these overdue claims, but VISN 16 refuses to provide any cost estimates.  Acadian Ambulance in my home district reports that the VA owes it more than $158,000 in total monthly compounded interest with more than $1.1 million in overdue claims.

Lewis-Payton admitted VISN 16 must work on “trust issues” with veterans and providers. Some of these individuals accuse VISN 16 of systematically gaming medical-record filing deadlines and leaving veterans with massive debts.  When providers sent required medical records by certified mail, VA employees shredded them without explanation, insisting they were incomplete after the 90 day filing deadline had expired.  As a result of this practice, one Louisiana veteran owes more than $22,000 and is being pursued by a collection agency. Lewis-Payton has not replied to questions about this case.  In other cases, VISN 16 reportedly cited absurd reasons for leaving veterans new medical debts, insisting a patient with congestive heart failure and symptoms of a heart attack should have travelled more than two and a half hours for care at a VA facility instead of visiting his local hospital emergency room. 

Veterans face similar hassles nationwide.  A report by the Government Accountability Office warns: “veterans whose claims have been inappropriately denied may have been held financially liable for emergency care that VA should have covered, and they may not be aware of their rights to appeal these denials.”  The report documented the VA’s poor communication with medical providers and raised doubts that the department would “fully address the issues identified.” 

Reforming the VA’s “corrosive culture” will take years.  My Veterans Credit Protection Act is a start.  My bill would accelerate Congressional oversight and continue exposing VISNs that inappropriately increase costs for taxpayers and veterans.  It also requires the VA to clean up credit problems it needlessly creates for veterans and makes it easier for providers to report unfair payment denial games by VA employees. 

As House and Senate conferees negotiate a larger veterans’ bill, I urge them to protect veterans from unfair medical debts and make the VA pay its bills on time.  We should honor the heroes who sacrificed for our freedom, instead of allowing VA bureaucrats to play games with their life-saving medical care. 

Boustany, a cardiovascular surgeon, has represented congressional districts in southwestern Louisiana since 2005.  He sits on the Ways and Means Committee and serves as chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.