A recent, rather glowing, analysis of the Department of Veterans Affairs by The Washington Monthly was not only rife with flagrant errors, but was also directly overseen by an editor with a clear conflict of interest.
Washington Monthly and Mother Jones have both written stories summing up the climate of VA criticism as a “Koch-funded plot.” Emails obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation note that Phil Longman is the principal editor of The Washington Monthly investigation, which Mother Jones subsequently picked up. He also sits on congressionally-established body designed to forward reform ideas for the department. The Commission on Care’s report is due in June, and it doesn’t appear favorable to the VA, a fact that more than irritates Longman, given his praise of the VA and socialized medicine.
In advance of the report, comes this Longman-edited take of the VA, which seeks to debunk criticisms throwing the health care system into disrepute. The attempt is filled with errors.
According to a senior leader of a veterans’ organization, Longman “is upset that the commission is going in a different direction than he wants it to. He wrote a book called the Best Care Anywhere about why the VA should serve as a model health care system for all Americans, not just veterans. He has a vested interested in both refuting arguments that the VA is a failed health care system, minimizing the problems at the VA, and blocking any reform efforts. This would appear to be part of that campaign. Everybody needs to know that he has an interest in minimizing the scandal.”
“That is why that article turned out the way it did,” the senior leader told TheDCNF.
There are at least three falsehoods apparent in the article.
1. 40 veterans did not die while waiting for care in Phoenix
Alicia Mundy’s piece at The Washington Monthly delved into the scandal that enveloped the Phoenix VA medical center in 2014. The scandal involved the deaths of at least 40 veterans, as well as a massive cover-up operation instigated by staff to make it appear as though veterans only had to wait a short amount of time to receive appointments.
But for Mundy, once the media fervor died down and the inspector general investigated the situation further, evidence revealed that only six veterans had actually died while languishing on wait lists.
In reality, at least 40 patients, not six, died while waiting for appointments. As the Inspector General report states: “From our review of PVAHCS electronic records, we were able to identify 40 patients who died while on the EWL during the period April 2013 through April 2014.”
Data not included in the final report shows that the number of deaths totaled 293 for veterans in the Phoenix area. These veterans were placed on official and unofficial wait lists.
2. There’s no evidence the wait time scandal resulted in the deaths of veterans
Kevin Drum repeated Mundy’s analysis in an article at Mother Jones, and while he admitted some employees at Phoenix had evidently gamed wait times at the facility, he added, “there was no evidence that it caused any deaths; and there was no evidence that care had been compromised.”
His statement couldn’t be further from the truth. A senior IG official admitted all the way back in 2014 that delays in care were at least partly responsible for patient deaths at Phoenix.
What’s more, VA itself found that delays in care led to the deaths of 23 veterans, due to a lack of endoscopy screenings for gastrointestinal cancer.
3. There were no widespread problems with wait times at Phoenix or anywhere else
As far as Mundy is concerned, her analysis indicated that “there was no fundamental problem at the VA with wait times, in Phoenix or anywhere else.”
The IG report establishes exactly the opposite conclusion.
“As a result of using inappropriate scheduling practices, reported wait times were unreliable, and we could not obtain reasonable assurance that all veterans seeking care received the care they needed,” the Phoenix report noted.
These scheduling practices existed not just at Phoenix, but across the nation.
The same IG report notes, “Inappropriate scheduling practices are a nationwide systemic problem. We identified multiple types of scheduling practices in use that did not comply with VHA’s scheduling policy. These practices became systemic because VHA did not hold senior headquarters and facility leadership responsible and accountable for implementing action plans that addressed compliance with scheduling procedures.”
A litany of IG reports being released in 2016 on wait times at 73 VA facilities nationwide also found 51 cases of serious scheduling problems.
4. 96 percent of veterans across the VA received appointments within 30 days
Mundy’s piece goes on to argue, “In most VA facilities, wait times for established patients to see a primary care doc or a specialist were in the range of two to four days … For the VA system as a whole, 96 percent of patients received appointments within thirty days.”
Mundy cites VA statistics from June 2014.
Reported wait times showing remarkable efficiency should be viewed with considerable skepticism. The listed 96 percent is unlikely to be true because of an IG report released in August 2014, which found that “the breakdown of the ethics system within VHA contributed significantly to the questioning of the reliability of VHA’s reported wait time data. VHA’s audit, directed by the former VA Secretary in May 2014 following numerous allegations, also found that inappropriate scheduling practices were a systemic problem nationwide.”
In other words, wait time numbers prior to the date the report was issued are probably false.
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