A new investigative report from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) finds that 1,000 vets may have died over the past decade due to malfeasance within the VA. And that’s just the beginning.
FRIENDLY FIRE: A New, Comprehensive Report on the VA’s Health & Money Problems
In September of last year, Thomas Breen, a 71-year old Navy veteran, was rushed to a Veterans Affairs hospital E.R. in Phoenix, Arizona. His medical chart noted his situation was “urgent,” but doctors sent him home anyway. According to reports on CNN, the veteran and his family called “day after day” to try to get a follow-up appointment, but to no avail. The vet’s daughter-in-law says they were told things like, “Well, you know, we have other patients that are critical as well…It’s a seven-month waiting list. And you’re gonna have to have patience.”
Not long after that E.R. visit and after much suffering, the veteran died of Stage 4 bladder cancer on November 30, 2013.
That is just one of the heartrending accounts told in a new, investigative report more than 150 pages long released today by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma). It’s entitled: “Friendly Fire: Death, Delay, and Dismay at the VA.”
Based on publicly available information, today’s report says that in the past decade, more than 1,000 vets may have died due to VA malfeasance. The VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for medical malpractice. And, ultimately, taxpayers shoulder the cost.
Friendly Fire concludes that the VA’s problems go far beyond the anecdotes told to date in public. It chronicles deep-seated problems of fraud, abuse, and retaliation against whistleblowers in a giant, cumbersome bureaucracy that is too often ineffective.
The VA’s troubles have persisted for decades, across administrations; and the report largely blames Congress for its alleged failure to conduct effective oversight.
A NATIONAL PROBLEM
Serious problems at the VA have been highlighted by recent revelations of vets dying—at least 18 in Phoenix alone—while on waiting lists for doctor appointments. The alleged lapses are so serious that the FBI has begun a criminal investigation into whether VA hospital officials “knowingly lied about wait times for veterans in order to receive performance bonuses.”
An interim report by the Inspector General concluded that 1,700 veterans were kept on lengthy waiting lists at the Phoenix VA facility. The average wait for an initial appointment was more than 16 weeks. The IG also said that VA officials falsified records to cover up the treatment delays.
Friendly Fire finds that unacceptably long waiting lists are endemic. It states that more than 20 vets are dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long at just one VA facility in South Carolina. In Georgia, three deaths were attributed to delays in care and 5,100 vets awaiting gastrointestinal procedures were left unattended to between 2011 and 2012 (the facility reported no G.I. delays as of January 2014). An independent review and criminal investigation uncovered suspicious deaths at the VA Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky.
But attempts to quantify deaths and injuries have too often faced roadblocks and resistance by VA officials. The report says that the VA has “rebuffed congressional calls” to disclose information and has, at times, turned away state medical inspectors.
For example, Florida state inspectors were not allowed to conduct inspections at two VA facilities in April.
The state is now suing the VA to try to get access.
One obstacle to improving the plight of vets in the VA system lies in the VA culture in which “administrators manipulate both data and employees to give an appearance that all is well,” according to the report. Employees who try to blow the whistle on problems or errors are “punished, bullied, put on “bad boy” lists or transferred.
One such case is that of former VA employee and Marine vet Oliver Mitchell. According to Friendly Fire,
Mitchell refused orders to purge the requests for medical appointments by thousands of vets and suffered years of retaliation.
Meantime, the report claims that employees who bend the rules or break the law are rewarded with bonuses or put on paid leave.
Total VA funding has grown by 68 percent between 2009 and fiscal year 2015. The President’s 2015 Budget calls for $163.9 billion for the VA, including a two billion dollar increase in discretionary spending over 2014.
In the wake of the VA controversy, some members of Congress have moved to provide additional funding for fixes. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). It provides $500 million for extra VA providers and $200 million to lease space at 26 medical facilities. It also grants the VA the authority to contract with private medical professionals outside the VA system for vets who live more than 40 miles from the nearest facility or face serious delays. The Congressional Budget Office noted that the budgetary impact of the bill is “highly uncertain” but issued a “preliminary” estimate that found that the private care provision would cost American taxpayers $35 billion over the next two years and $50 billion each year thereafter.
Sen. Coburn, a strict fiscal conservative, supports the Senate bill but argues that there are no financial excuses as to why the VA has not been able to meet its goals in caring for vets. Historically, the agency has splurged on junkets, six-figure salaries and bonuses; and ends nearly every year with more than $30 billion left over, including a half a billion earmarked for health care.
Examples of waste, fraud and abuse documented in Friendly Fire include:
• $5.1 million spent on software licenses that are never used.
• Nearly $500 million spent on conference rooms and curtains.
• Engineering employees at one facility alone spent $650,000 on unallowed purchases using their government debit cards.
• Millions are spent on employment call centers that handle two calls a day.
• $500,000 is spent on art and photographs to decorate VA facilities.
• Employees are paid millions to perform union duties.
• Millions are spent on historic preservation renovations including plans to install a new, decorative water wheel on the Grist Mill in Maryland.
• $2.3 million in stimulus funds was spent on a wind turbine that never became functional at a VA facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Read my entire report at this site, which you’ll want to bookmark for the future: