Lawmakers skeptical VA can change

Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Monday expressed doubt that the Veterans Affairs Department would be able to revamp its troubled healthcare system in the wake of a nationwide audit.

The internal review, released Monday afternoon, found that more than 57,000 veterans were waiting more than 90 days for their first doctor’s appointment, and an additional 63,000 veterans who enrolled in the system in the last 10 years have not seen a physician.

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“America’s veterans deserve better,” Philip Matkovsky, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary, said at the top of his remarks. “This is a breach of trust. It is irresponsible. It is indefensible. And it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans … and the American people.”

“If this crisis has taught me anything it’s to question everything,” he later said.

Yet the public apology did little to quash lawmakers’ skepticism.

“It’s hard to believe the data,” Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said, before questioning why the department had not yet fired any officials.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) cited a letter he received last month from VA officials that said a facility in his district had no veterans waiting to receive care when the agency audit revealed patients were waiting an average of 60 days, one of the worst in the nation.

“Which number should I believe?” he asked.

Matkovsky said he should believe the internal review but warned that “data could become worse” as the department reassesses its patient wait times.

“Bad news would be welcome because … it would be rooted in reality,” O’Rourke said. He called on the Government Accountability Office to review the VA’s wait times.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said the lack of trust between Congress and the department was “universal.”

Matkovsky stressed that the newly released survey was meant to be a “reset” of the department’s health practices. “We are committed to this change. It’s the start, it’s not the end.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) refuted Matkovsky’s claim that one of the impediments to providing better care was the VA’s outdated technology.

“The more I sit here … the more baffled I am,” she said, saying that Congress has approved hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul the agency’s information technology.

Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin said the audit was a "proactive attempt" to determine the extent of the fraudulent practices and that the review was "successful" in the regard. 

A number of panel members called for a criminal investigation into the alleged wrongdoing.

Matkovsky said the VA would adopt a  “get back to basics” strategy that would reassess wait-times across the country.

“It’s a good system. It can be a great system,” he told the panel.