Wednesday, May 28, 2014

NOLA TIMES-PICAYUNE: House ready to take up two bills sponsors say will enhance VA health care accountability

SOURCE:  New Orleans Times-Picayune, Bruce Alpert reporting (5/27/2014)


House ready to take up two bills sponsors say will enhance VA health care accountability

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Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy are both speaking out on recent problems identified with veterans' health care.
Bruce Alpert, | Times-PicayuneBy Bruce Alpert, | Times-Picayune 
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on May 27, 2014 at 4:41 PM, updated May 27, 2014 at 5:11 PM
WASHINGTON -- With veterans health care issues continuing to raise concerns, the House of Representatives Wednesday will consider two bills designed to enhance accountability.
The Demanding Accountability for Veterans Act requires notifying the Veterans Affairs secretary and congressional veterans committees when the agency fails to respond to recommendations from the agency's inspector general.

It also requires the secretary to provide the appropriate counseling and mitigation plan to employees who aren't performing their jobs adequately and bars a performance bonus to any manager with unresolved performance issues.
A second bill on Wednesday's calendar is designed to strengthen and give more independence to the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses.

A Veterans Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations contends the research panel had money diverted to other purposes and had been "marginalized by VA's efforts to embargo their reports and pack the RAC with members who had a bias toward seeing Gulf War illnesses as having a psychosomatic rather than biological basis."

Subcommittee Chair Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a Marine combat veteran, said the research committee must act independently.

"As a Gulf War veteran, I've been extremely disappointed at the actions of VA staff to misdirect Gulf War illnesses research by reviving the scientifically discredited concept that 'the same thing happens after every war,' and to eliminate oversight, just as science is finally making some progress," said Coffman, the lead sponsor of the new legislation.

The bill directs the committee to look at the health effects of toxic chemicals Gulf veterans were exposed to, and rely on both human and animal studies.

"We owe it to those who have served our country to provide them with the best medical care and resources available," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., the lead Democratic sponsor. "This includes ensuring the VA conducts objective research on chronic illnesses experienced by Gulf War veterans, in an effort to find treatments that can make a difference in their quality of life."

Allegations that officials at a VA medical facility in Arizona, and perhaps other facilities, too, created bogus schedules to make it appear waits for service were shorter than reality has created a stir in Washington, with some members of Congress demanding that Veterans Secretary Erik Shinseki resign or be fired.

Shinseki is expected to deliver a preliminary report to President Barack Obama on the scheduling fiasco later this week.

At a Memorial Day Event Monday, Obama said the nation must do better for its veterans.
"We must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families, and ensure they get the care and benefits and opportunities that they've earned and that they deserve.  These Americans have done their duty.  They ask nothing more than that our country does ours -- now and for decades to come," the president said.

Louisiana members have also spoken out.

''To honor our obligation to care for veterans, we must address the problems in the VA hospital system," said Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, a candidate for the Senate facing a field that includes Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu. "This includes reviewing the average wait time for a new visit and for procedures, the 'no show' rate for appointments, the number of hospital beds for particular conditions such as inpatient psychiatric services, and indicators of the adequacy of service. These results should be posted online so the veteran accessing service could compare his or her wait times and hold the system accountable."

A 2008 inspector general's report projected that about 4.9 million, or 18 percent of the annual outpatient appointments that year, went unused, meaning bigger delays for those needing care.

Landrieu has also spoken out.

"What happened at the VA is completely inexcusable and no stone should remain unturned in the search for answers on how it happened and what should be done to prevent it from happening again," Landrieu said. "Our veterans put their lives on the line to fight for freedom at home and around the world.  In return for the sacrifices they and their families make in service to their country, they deserve the best care America has to offer.  Ensuring they receive this care is going to take strong leadership at the VA to hold the agency accountable for producing results."

On Monday, some veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, criticized Congress for not allocating enough resources for a Veterans Affairs health care system facing more demands from returning Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans. The groups specifically targeted Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., for criticism after he blasted the veterans organizations for failing to join him and other lawmakers demanding leadership changes at the VA.

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