VA data-manipulation and wait-time problems persist.
Despite the media’s spotlight on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ failure to offer veterans service in a timely manner and its culture of bullying those who try reporting these problems, things do not appear to be improving. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this April about six VA medical centers and their corresponding regional networks in Massachusetts, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas, and California. The GAO found long wait times and a lack of primary care access for newly enrolled veterans. The report found that VA medical center staff did not follow Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) scheduling policy, which resulted in wait times of weeks or months for veterans. Some newly enrolled veterans did not appear on the VHA New Enrollee Appointment Request list, meaning the medical centers didn’t even have a record of appointment requests. Medical center officials could not explain why.
On top of these discouraging GAO findings, whistleblowers say the VA is still manipulating wait-time data.
In July 2014, after allegations of manipulated wait-time data first came to light, the Project On Government Oversight and other organizations teamed up with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to put out a call to people in the VA system to share their stories. Nearly a thousand responses poured in to POGO, and a disturbing pattern emerged. POGO found the VA suffered from a culture of fear and of retaliation in which employees were punished for voicing concerns.
Since then, there have been various media investigations, reviews of the VA system, and Congressional hearings. Yet problems persist. VA whistleblowers testified at a Senate Hearing on VA accountability in September 2015, describing the hostile culture at the VA and a distrust of VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Some whistleblowers even alleged that the office leaked their information to retaliatory managers and failed to investigate reports of misconduct. The Office of Special Counsel seems to agree, and recently challenged the VA OIG for failing to fully investigate whistleblower allegations.
After two years without a permanent Inspector General, on April 19, the Senate finally confirmed Michael Missal to head the VA OIG. This is a step in the right direction. Permanent Inspectors General are much more effective than acting IGs, who are often more beholden to the agency they’re charged with overseeing, cannot set long-term strategic plans, and do not have the authority to implement real change.
The quality of care at the VA cannot be fully remedied until the agency takes steps to change its culture. It is POGO’s hope that with a permanent IG now in place, continued media pressure, and the recent reports from agencies like GAO and Office of Special Counsel, the VA’s culture of retaliation will turn around. If it doesn’t, if the VA continues to silence employees looking to raise concerns, those problems will continue go unfixed and it is veterans who will end up paying the price.