Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Opinion

Column: Hold VA hospitals to account for poor care

Last September, Teddy Breen rushed his father, a 71-year-old Navy veteran named Thomas Breen with blood in his urine and a history of cancer, to the Phoenix VA emergency room. The doctors examined him, marked his chart urgent and sent him home. When no one called to schedule a follow-up, Teddy's wife, Sally, began calling the VA daily to request a primary care doctor appointment.

"Why is this happening? Why won't anybody help me?" Teddy recalls his father asking in his final, painful days.

"Be patient," VA officials told Sally.

Two months after that ER visit, Thomas Breen died of Stage 4 bladder cancer.

Sadly, Breen was not alone in his suffering. He was one of at least 40 veterans who recently died without treatment after being placed on the Phoenix VA's "secret waiting list."

To hide the fact that they were forcing 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans to wait months to see a doctor, Phoenix VA managers kept two lists: an official list sent to Washington that alleged progress in providing timely appointments, and a secret one that revealed actual wait times of more than a year.

Because the VA uses performance targets of reduced wait times to determine bonus levels, the Phoenix director actually received nearly $10,000 in bonuses last year — despite knowing about the off-the-books list and defending its use to staff.

I have also heard from veterans in my district who cannot get care. One veteran's appointment was delayed for months, and by the time he saw a doctor, his cancer had advanced to Stage 4. Another constituent was initially misdiagnosed at the VA, then received a correct diagnosis of esophageal cancer, only to wait months another appointment. After five months, he contacted my office, and we were able to expedite his treatment.

This is unacceptable. I am always glad to help the veterans in my district, but it shouldn't take an act of Congress for a veteran with cancer to get treated at the VA.

President Barack Obama should demand that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki take immediate steps to abolish the practice of secret waiting lists at all facilities, punish every individual responsible for these heinous and shameful actions, and ensure that all veterans receive care in a timely fashion.

As a Congress, we must take action to hold VA employees and the department as a whole accountable.

First, we must thoroughly investigate incidents of deadly mismanagement in Phoenix and other facilities in order to determine what happened, how it happened and who knew about it; advise the VA on how to prevent future negligence; and issue recommendations on appropriate punishments — including potential criminal charges — for those involved. House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has launched an investigation and already uncovered dozens of recent preventable deaths at other VA medical centers.

Second, we must ensure that the VA has the tools it needs to remove senior staff based on performance. Under current law, firing VA senior executive service employees is nearly impossible and can drag on almost indefinitely.

I am a co-sponsor of the VA Management Accountability Act, which cuts through the red tape and gives the secretary complete authority to fire or demote senior employees for poor performance. Bureaucrats who deliberately deny care to sick veterans to pad their own pockets should be fired on the spot — not receive bonuses from American taxpayers.

Third, we must make sure that the VA has the resources to provide timely, quality health care to our veterans. As a member of the House VA Appropriations Subcommittee, I worked hard to ensure that our 2015 bill fully funds VA medical services and the modernization of the department's medical records system. The Senate should take up this legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the House on Wednesday, and approve it without delay.

Fourth, we must continue exercising our constitutional oversight responsibility and hold the VA accountable for delivering better results. Our VA Appropriations bill includes rigorous new reporting requirements for regional offices and facilities and provisions to increase congressional oversight over VA.

Finally, we must listen to veterans in our districts and remain vigilant in identifying and responding to problems that may be more widespread or systematic. If you or your family members have faced delays or denials in getting treatment from the VA, please contact my office and tell me your story. To hold VA accountable for serving you better, we need your input.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, represents Florida's 17th district, which includes part of Hillsborough County. An Army veteran, he sits on the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. You can reach his office at (941) 575-9101 or email him through his website at www.rooney.house.gov. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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