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Nancy Smith

Lowering the Bar at the VA

August 27, 2014 - 6:00pm

The headline reads, "Report: No vets died because of delays." Well, whew! I guess everything's OK at the VA then?

Nobody died. Does that mean veterans were getting the medical care they needed all along? Does it mean it's OK to make our servicemen wait for months for appointments? Is it OK that VA employees falsified records to cover up the delays?

No, no and no.

This is no slam on any newspaper reporting the story. All headlines I've seen are accurate. Read the stories. The crazy truth is, the Veterans Administration wants you to believe that just because the 40 vets who died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital didn't die because of the wait, the story somehow has been blown out of proportion: Calm down,you sillies, we didn't kill 'em.

I won't go so far as to call the work shown in the report a whitewash. But I urge you to at least scan it. See if it doesn't sound very much as if somebody is looking to maximize damage control and ultimately lower the expectations bar at the VA.

To produce the report, investigators studied 3,409 cases, including the 40 patients who died while on the Electronic Waiting List between April 2013 and April 2014.

What they did is outline 45 separate cases in which vets were "negatively affected" -- I would more appropriately call it "criminally neglected" -- including one of a man in his mid-60s who walked into the Phoenix VA with a massive lump on his chest. Never mind that tests were ordered, he was forced to wait nine weeks before he was given a biopsy and diagnosed with widely metastatic lung cancer. He later died.I guess the verdict is, the wait didn't kill him, he was going to die anyway. But did he have to die this badly? Can anyone imagine this man's anxiety with every passing day he went untreated?

Another patient in his late 70s visited the VA emergency room several times for different complaints, and each time his chart showed very high blood pressure with a recommendation of immediate follow-up care. The man never received an appointment and died within weeks of complications from his condition. If that man were my loved one, I wouldn't rest, wouldn't let my congressman be, until I found out how my country could turn its back on one of its heroes.

Buried in the report is confirmation that clerks were cooking the books to make the delays in wait times appear shorter. It said 69 members of the Phoenix staff admitted to hiding true wait times, "fixing" wait times and printing out requests for appointments and hiding them in desks instead of adding them to official wait lists.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald claims heads are rolling. "Two members of the senior executive service have resigned or retired," he said. "Three members of the senior executive service have been placed on administrative leave, pending the results of investigations. Over two dozen health care professionals have been removed from their positions, and four more GS-15s or below have been placed on administrative leave." Butguess what? The administrators who created the problems in the first place are still there.

The executive summary of the report states this: "While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of the quality of timely quality care caused the death of these victims."

Can't "conclusively assert ..." Really?

So, I guess, if the VA just lays on a few more staff and tidies up a little here and there, everything will be right as rain for our men and women promised first-class health care.

By the way, the stunningly shabby treatment and wait times of veterans have turned up not only in Phoenix, but in other VA facilities around the country. Whistle-blowers in Wyoming, Texas and North Carolina allege there was a concerted effort to hide long wait times there, too.In fact, a June 9 internal audit of hundreds of Veterans Affairs facilities revealed that 63,869 vets enrolled in the VA health care system in the past 10 years had yet to be seen for an appointment.

Tuesday's report does at least include 24 recommendations, including determining an appropriate response to veterans who've been injured and a complete overhaul of the way appointments are scheduled and tracked.

McDonald told the American Legion's National Convention in North Carolina later in the day that he has agreed to all 24 recommendations. Of course he has. The agency has mightily embarrassed President Obama -- not his fault, but his watch. To that end the president quickly signed a $16 billion VA overhaul into law and called the agency's issues "outrageous" and "inexcusable."

On the other hand, the VA is a big, broken bureaucracy that has taken on a life of its own. The primary focus of its report -- on "no mea culpas here" -- is unbelievably disturbing in a nation I thought had learned since the tragedy of Vietnam how to thank its service veterans. The president has promised them, in fact we all want them, to have the best our government has to offer. But has this behemoth of an agency taken the same pledge? I have to wonder.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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