The mountain of evidence that the Department of Veterans Affairs is broken and needs reform grew with recent reports of improper care and scheduling manipulations at a veterans clinic in northern Indiana.
According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, a VA investigation confirmed allegations made by veterans and whistleblowers at the VA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Peru, Ind., which I represent in Congress.
Last year, I requested this investigation along with then-chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jeff Miller after we received disturbing complaints from veterans and employees.
What the investigation found is simply reprehensible.
The VA determined several veterans had their pain medications reduced without a face-to-face examination by a doctor. One veteran whose pain medication was tapered without an exam died of coronary artery disease shortly thereafter. While the VA could not confirm a direct connection, the VA was concerned enough to order a further external review.
Even if the veteran’s death did not result from the dosage change, it is clear these practices fall unacceptably short of the level of care our veterans expect.
In addition to this improper medical care, employees at the clinic regularly scheduled “placeholder” appointments for veterans without their knowledge and then canceled them at the last minute.
Scheduling secret placeholder appointments amounts to cooking the books. It denies veterans the timely care they deserve, distorts the truth about wait times, and puts veterans’ lives at risk.
Following this report, I joined House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe and my fellow Hoosier Congressman Jim Banks in sending a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin requesting additional information about the misconduct and the VA’s response.
We are also continuing our work to fix the VA so it works for veterans. There are many dedicated VA employees who work tirelessly every day to care for our brave veterans. However, there are also systemic flaws and bad actors that require urgent action.
We need to increase accountability at VA facilities across the country. We need to make it easier to hire good employees and dismiss those responsible for misconduct. And we need to ensure veterans have a lifeline when the VA falls short.
To boost accountability, I recently reintroduced my legislation to require facilities to follow all VA scheduling standards and guidelines as a matter of law.
A report by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) earlier this year found continued inaccuracies in reported wait times for veterans as a result of improper scheduling practices. The report concluded these inaccuracies limited veterans’ access to the Veterans Choice Program, which Congress established to enable veterans to receive non-VA medical care when a timely VA appointment is not available.
By codifying the requirement for facility directors to annually certify compliance with VA rules – and withholding bonuses from those who fail to do so – the VA Scheduling Accountability Act will ensure VA facilities put veterans first. This legislation was just approved by the House VA Committee, and I’m confident the House will soon pass it, the Senate will follow suit, and we will get it to the president’s desk.
To ensure the VA can hire the best employees – and punish or fire bad actors – we are working on important reforms like the VA Accountability First Act and H.R. 1367. Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Roe, the House in March passed both of these bills. Together, these bills will give the VA secretary more flexibility to demote, suspend, or remove employees for misconduct or poor performance and improve efforts to recruit, hire, and retain qualified employees.
And to maintain a critical lifeline for veterans, Congress recently passed a law to prevent the Veterans Choice Program from expiring later this year. Ensuring this program continues to allow our veterans to access quality, timely care is a positive step as we work to reform the VA.
The problems at the VA are serious, deep, and widespread. Fixing them will require bipartisanship, persistence, and a renewed commitment to the brave men and women who wore the uniform of the United States Armed Forces.
As long as our veterans have any reason to doubt the VA’s commitment to their care, I will not stop demanding accountability, because that is what our veterans deserve.
Jackie Walorski represents the 2nd Congressional District of Indiana in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.