House Panel Denounces VA’s Failure To Address Preventable Deaths
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs criticized Department of Veterans Affairs officials for their failure to promptly and transparently address findings that at least 23 veterans have died as a result of treatment delays at VA medical centers, Sacramento Bee reports.
VA on Monday released a report that found 76 patients in the VA health care system whose care warranted an "institutional disclosure," or a formal notification that problems in care are expected to result in a patient's death or serious injury. According to the report, 23 of those 76 identified patients died primarily because of delays in gastrointestinal treatment (Kirkwood, Sacramento Bee, 4/9).
The hearing also follows a report from the Center of Investigative Reporting that found VA since Sept. 11, 2001, issued more than $200 million in wrongful death payments to the survivors of nearly 1,000 VA patients. According to CIR, the cases range from people who committed suicide after being denied mental health treatment, veterans from Vietnam who were diagnosed with cancerous tumors that were allowed to grow, and a variety of missed diagnoses, instances of elder neglect and botched surgeries (Glantz, Center for Investigative Reporting, 4/9).
During the hearing Wednesday, lawmakers questioned Thomas Lynch -- assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration -- on the VA's slow response, limited transparency and evident failure to address the issues.
Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) criticized the department's failure to respond to the panel's requests for information, such as what steps the department has taken to discipline the individuals who are responsible and how the agency has distributed funds earmarked for reducing medical claims backlogs and improving patient care. Miller said, "It concerns me that my staff has been asking for further details on the deaths that occurred as a result of delays in cases at VA medical facilities for months, and only two days before this hearing did the VA provide the information we have been asking for."
Miller also cited a September 2013 report from the Veterans Administration inspector general that found more than $1 million in funding was given to reduce a 4,000 backlog of medical claims at William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center. According to the patient death report, six of the veteran patient deaths occurred at the Dorn VA Medical Center. However, the VA backlog report found that only $200,000 of the backlog funding was used to reduce the center's medical claims backlog.
Miller noted that the committee has yet to hear from VA where the other funding was used.
In response, Lynch said, "I have tried to work with your committee ... I have tried to share information we've obtained as we're obtaining it," adding, "We strive to be transparent" (Sacramento Bee, 4/9).
GOP Panel Members Seek Accountability
In related news, panel members voiced support for Miller's bill, which would facilitate the firing of high-ranking civil servants. Specifically, the legislation would remove from the current firing process the notification and ability to appeal any disciplinary actions.
According to Republicans on the panel, the VA has yet to fire anyone over the findings about veteran patient deaths. Democrats on the panel also expressed concerns about VA accountability, but they stopped short of backing the legislation, National Journal reports.
Meanwhile, Lynch echoed concerns voiced by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week about how the agency could better ensure VA employees are performing well. "I understand your concern ... regarding accountability," but "I'm troubled a little bit about whether or not firing somebody is necessarily the answer" (Carney, National Journal, 4/9).
Lynch added, "I think we need to be careful about punishing everybody for what happened at a few medical centers" (Sacramento Bee, 4/9).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.