Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin reported the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is “still in critical condition” during a White House briefing on May 31, 2017. Shulkin warned that despite efforts to reduce wait times for veterans’ medical appointments, and expanding veterans care in the private sector, there is still major improvements that need to be made to the agency’s core functions.
The U.S. has funded War on Terror campaigns for 16 years, and there are numerous veterans that need medical care for wounds, injuries and mental health issues sustained during their service, as well as retirees who need routine, basic care as they age. The VA has not been able to keep up with patient needs and new applicants. Under the Trump administration, the White House pledged to address these issues and the lack of organization and functionality needed. Shulkin addressed five key fixes needed of the VA.
#1 Application Backlog
The VA website currently states that there is a 90-day processing time for applicants; this timeframe starts over if there are questions about any answers, or if the forms are improperly filled out and returned to the veteran. The processing time is also in addition to the backlog of applications waiting to be processed.
In February, a whistleblower sent a letter to the White House, alerting them to the fact that over 500,000 applications at the Atlanta VA were going to be thrown out due to being incomplete; they were noted as having errors made by the applicants. In fact, the whistleblower wrote, the mistakes were made by the VA, and the applicants were not properly informed by VA officials.
#2 Appointment Wait-Times
In April, the Trump administration unveiled a new website aimed at providing more transparency and accountability among VA clinics across the country with a new website designed to showcase the wait times for each individual clinic. The process was designed to keep clinics honest and provide as much information as possible to veterans.
Veteran wait times became a national outrage in 2014, when it was revealed that veterans were dying while waiting to be seen. A new report from the VA Office of the Inspector General released in May revealed that more than 100 veterans died while experiencing delays in receiving care from a VA hospital in Los Angeles.
In December, Shulkin said the number of veterans waiting longer than a month to be seen for urgent medical treatment had dropped from 57,000 to 600 since he became the VA health chief.
“If you have an urgent care problem, your wait should be zero,” he told USA Today.
#3 Building Upgrades
The assessment from Shulkin underscores the dire need for upgrades for many of the country’s VA facilities, some of which originated during the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, with most buildings averaging around 60 years old.
While briefing the press on the state of the VA, Shulkin revealed the total cost of renovating the infrastructure of the entire VA system would cost in the ballpark of $18 billion.
#4 Expansion of Care
One of the goals of President Barrack Obama’s Administration was to provide veterans the opportunity to seek medical care outside the VA system, by allowing patients who met certain health or geographical criteria to be seen by private doctors. An organized, efficient system of approval for outside care would also alleviate the crisis the agency faces in regards to wait times.
According to Shulkin, while the theory is good, in practice it hasn’t improved anything.
Under the current programs, only one in five veterans are approved to be seen outside the VA system, due to a complicated process of red tape. Even when veterans are seen in the private sector, the VA lags in paying the bills, with $50 million tabs currently sitting unpaid for the last six months.
#5 Quality of Care
The quickness of care doesn’t make much of a difference if the VA’s quality has lagged, as has been reported at VA clinics and hospitals around the country. In March, a veteran successfully sued the VA after it was determined the Phoenix clinic missed signs of prostate cancer. A VA clinic in Chicago was found to have roaches in its food preparation areas, a problem clinic officials were aware of but had not taken upon themselves to correct before it was discovered by health inspectors.
Shulkin said that several VA facilities have received one-star rating from the agency’s internal rating system, including two in Texas, three in Tennessee, two in California and one each in Michigan, Arizona, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon and Montana.
With the War on Terror showing no sign of slowing down, it’s safe to assume the line of veterans in need of medical care will only grow longer, and as such, the need for the issues to be addressed will only increase, as well.