Lawmakers press VA on transparency


House lawmakers on Monday expressed displeasure that the Veterans Affairs Department has not been more transparent in its efforts to improve patient wait times and pressed the agency’s senior leaders to move faster to solve the crisis.

The VA last month launched the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative in response to revelations that veterans nationwide were waiting longer than official wait times to see a doctor. The agency claims the program has led to approximately 200,000 more appointments between May 15 to June 1.

However, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) expressed skepticism over the latest VA patient claim.

“Data manipulation of patient waiting times was found to be widespread. Given that, how can Congress, the American taxpayer, and our nation’s veterans and their families have any confidence in these latest numbers the Department has released?” he asked.

Miller added that the panel has yet to review the department's data on the program, noting that he has twice requested Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to brief members on the initiative.

“If VA’s work has indeed led to 200,000 more appointments for veteran patients so far, what is there to hide?” Miller asked.

The panel convened hours after the U.S. Office of Special Counsel sent a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders detailing a series of whistleblower complaints that said the VA routinely dismissed patient concerns.

The access initiative includes extending VA clinic hours to evening and weekends and assesses facility capacities to see patients. Thomas Lynch, an assistant deputy under secretary at VA, said the effort would cost $312 million and would be paid for from the $490 million the VA expected to carry over into fiscal year 2015.

He said the agency was taking a number of steps to increase access, including establishing productivity measurements for its doctors by the end of the fiscal year. Those assurances were not enough for lawmakers.

Rep. Michael Coffman (R-Colo.) said the “problem is we need to be convinced.”

“What we’re asking is for the same people who drove us into this ditch to get us out of this ditch,” he said to Lynch, who has served in the VA for 30 years.

Lynch said the department has a “good” healthcare system.

“Not if you’re a veteran, it’s not a good system,” Coffman replied. 

“I think the time has come when you know you don’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) told Lynch.

Lynch said the VA recognized it is in a position where it must “reestablish integrity” and said a outside party could be brought in to review the department’s information.

He said the findings in the OSC letter were unacceptable, but urged members not to draw any conclusions until a VA-mandated review of the claims is done in two weeks.