Problems at VA Facilities Linked to Maintenance
Routine maintenance issues account for 90% of the 1,100 problems found in the nation's 1,400 Veterans Affairs' health clinics and hospitals, according to a report released Wednesday based on a review ordered by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, the AP/Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Yen, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/22). Nicholson ordered the review earlier this month after a Washington Post series in February examined poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Zoroya, USA Today, 3/22).
The 94-page review found that 90% of problems at VA facilities are maintenance issues such as worn-out carpet, peeling paint and rodent sightings. About 10% of problems identified in the report were considered substantial. In eight cases, problems found at VA facilities were so serious they required immediate attention, according to the report (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/22).
Louise Van Diepen, chief of staff for the VA's health administration, said some of the findings -- such as spreading mold -- were troubling, but no health concerns had been found. She said that Nicholson "was concerned about the issues raised at Walter Reed and wanted to make sure that all VA facilities (were safe) ... for all patients."
In a letter to regional directors, Nicholson wrote, "The overwhelming majority of the issues identified are normal 'wear and tear' items that are continually addressed through regular inspections and recurring maintenance" (USA Today, 3/22).
Michael Kussman, the VA's acting undersecretary for health, said VA's maintenance budget for 2008 "should take care of any maintenance shortcomings" (Camden, Spokane Spokesman-Review, 3/22).
The VA maintenance budget for 2007 is $519 million (Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 3/22).
Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, "Who's been minding the store? They keep putting Band-Aids on problems, when what the agency needs is major triage" (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/22).
A separate review of VA's disability claims system is under way to determine how to minimize bureaucratic delays, paperwork and long appeals claims (USA Today, 3/22).
The report is available online. Note: You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report.
The House on Wednesday passed three bills aimed at improving health care services for veterans, CQ Today reports. A suicide-prevention bill (HR 327), which passed 423-0, would mandate screening for all patients at VA facilities for suicide risk factors, among other things (Yoest, CQ Today, 3/22).
The House also unanimously passed a bill (HR 797) that would expand benefits for veterans who lose sight in one eye during military service and a measure (HR 1284) that would create an annual cost-of-living benefit increase for troops with disabilities.
All three bills require Senate consideration (AP/Houston Chronicle, 3/21).
In related news, the Pentagon on Wednesday began an investigation into the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., after the Government Accountability Office last week sent a letter to the agency that said residents "may be at risk" because of ongoing health problems at the facility, the Washington Post reports. The Pentagon sent a four-doctor team to visit the facility unannounced on Wednesday morning. The team was appointed on Tuesday after Comptroller General David Walker sent a letter about the facility's conditions to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The letter included reports from inspectors made during its "oversight and monitoring" of the home, ordered by Congress in 2005.
In his letter, Walker noted a "rising number of resident deaths," an increased admission rate to Walter Reed, human waste found in resident rooms and veterans suffering from bed sores. Walker wrote, "GAO believes that these allegations should be examined because AFRH residents -- a vulnerable population of elderly, enlisted, military retirees, may be at risk."
Timothy Cox, the chief operating officer for the home, said that GAO accusations were "without merit" and were "inflammatory allegations" made without investigation.
Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday sent a letter to Gates that said they were "deeply dismayed" by GAO's findings, also calling for the Department of Defense "to immediately undertake an independent investigation" (Vogel/Ruane, Washington Post, 3/22).