Senate report: VA's scheduling problems are a symptom of malpractice epidemic

Wednesday - 6/25/2014, 4:13am EDT

By Stephanie Wasko
Special to Federal News Radio

The discovery of manipulated waiting lists only scratches the surface of the shifty business behind veterans' health care, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

His recent investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs' hospitals allegedly uncovered a "culture of manipulation," criminal activity and detrimental management, which has left the nation's defenders without the care they need.

"Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA's misconduct, and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice," Coburn said.

For the staff report, Coburn initiated an investigation starting in 2013 of VA hospitals across the country. His office looked into cases of documented deaths and delays resulting from what they say is poor conduct and incompetence within the VA. The investigation claims agency employees bullied, sexually harassed and abused and neglected veterans and their families, while these same employees suffered minimal consequences for their actions.

In response to the report, the VA released a statement to Federal News Radio saying, "The vast majority of VA employees are dedicated public servants who demonstrate genuine passion to care for veterans and their families every day. At VA, we depend on the service of VA employees and leaders who place the interests of veterans above and beyond self-interest, and who live by VA's core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence."

Although VA said its workers are honest and caring, Coburn's report alleged a theme of hidden malpractice in many hospitals that led to patient mistreatment.

"Thousands of veterans have been subjected to VA services that were inappropriate and insufficient, or provided too late or not at all," he said.

Even though hospitals already struggled to handle a long list of veterans waiting to receive care, the VA expanded care eligibility in 2009, the report stated. Coburn said these long wait times have caused harm to veterans and, on several occasions, have led to death. He said he found almost 1,000 veterans have died due to delayed treatment.

No punishment for misdeeds?

Even when veterans made it through the waiting game, Coburn claimed the care provided by VA nurses and doctors was inadequate and, at times, criminal. The investigation says it uncovered stories of theft, drug dealing, rape and murder by VA employees across the country. There were several cases where caregivers were found at fault in a veteran's death. The convicted workers received minimal, if any, penalties.

One example involved a VA nurse, who eventually admitted to killing a World War II veteran by an overdose of morphine in 2006. The veteran's family was interrogated for murder and a stepdaughter was reported saying, "The FBI was here a couple of times. They interrogated me and tried to make me say I did it and not to ruin the VA hospital's reputation." The nurse finally pleaded guilty for involuntary manslaughter, but the report stated she received only eight days in prison.

While some guilty employees avoided consequences or even received rewards, Coburn's staff said the report discovered that employees who questioned poor VA practices were quickly dismissed.

Even when staff members did not commit crimes, they often did not do the jobs assigned to them. According to Coburn, many VA doctors and nurses are overpaid, quick to leave early or not show up, and paid to spend their time on union work instead of treating patients.

The VA has pointed to financial problems to excuse their mistakes, but Coburn said the excuse does not work and the department has wasted and mismanaged billions of dollars.

"The VA will move $450 million in medical-care unobligated balances from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2015.This is the fifth year in a row that the VA has carried over funding for medical care," he said, adding that these funds could have been used to improve veteran care.

The report identified $20 billion that could have been better spent in providing health care, in addition to the $845 million of federal money spent to make up for VA malpractice since 2001.

No one was listening

Coburn said he blamed Congress for not listening to the warning of the VA's widespread issues.

"Whatever bill Congress passes cannot ignore the findings of this report," he said, "While it is good that Congress feels a sense of urgency, we are at this point because Congress has ignored or glossed over too many similar warnings in the past. Our sense of urgency should come from the scope of the problem, not our proximity to an election."

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed. He said in the report, "Congress has micromanaged Veterans Affairs in such a way that changing anything that has to do with dealing with veterans requires literally an act of Congress."

The VA said it plans to begin fixing its shortcomings, without waiting for acts of Congress.

"To begin, we will sharply focus our care, our services and our resources on veterans and operate at all times with unimpeachable integrity," acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement released earlier this month. "To that end, VA will move out immediately to get all veterans off of waiting lists and into clinics for the care they have earned and deserve, while simultaneously fixing the underlying issues that impede veterans' access. We are not waiting for anyone or anything to commence that work. We begin now."

Stephanie Wasko is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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