The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Monday that the Department of Veterans Affairs is routinely ignoring whistleblowers who warn about long wait times and substandard care for veterans, and believes these wait times aren't affecting veterans' health.
The special counsel's office sent a letter to President Barack Obama that said the VA still does not seem to be taking these warnings seriously. Instead, the VA has defended itself by saying lapses in health care could be improved, but aren't causing any real harm to veterans.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., says the VA needs to start listening to VA whistleblowers and admit there's a problem delivering health care services to veterans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
"The VA, and particularly the VA's Office of Medical Inspector (OMI), has consistently used a 'harmless error' defense, where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote to Obama. "This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans."
But that goes against the findings of the VA's Office of Inspector General, and prompted the Office of Special Counsel to recommend a new high-level official to ensure the VA is listening to whistleblowers.
"I recommend that the VA designate a high-level official to assess the conclusions and the proposed corrective actions in OSC reports, including disciplinary actions, and determine if the substantiated concerns indicate broader for systemic problems requiring attention," Lerner wrote.
The six-page letter said these same issues were outlined last year to the VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, but said nothing has been done since then.
"The Jackson VAMC cases are part of a troubling pattern of responses by the Department of Veterans Affairs to similar disclosures from whistleblowers at VA medical centers across the country," the letter said. "Too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care."
It also outlined two recent cases that show the price of the long wait times, and the VA's decision to ignore these problems.
In Colorado, for example, patients were subjected to "blind scheduling" in which the VA assigned a date for a medical appointment. If the veteran couldn't make that date, it was treated as a request by the veteran to change his desired date.
But in response, the OMI said it "could not substantiate that the failure to properly train staff resulted in a danger to public health and safety."
Lerner's letter also outlined a case in Massachusetts where a mentally ill veteran was institutionalized but not treated for eight years.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) reacted to the report by saying the VA will not be able to solve the problem of health care access to veterans until it admits the problems exist.
"This is a lesson VA should have already learned as part of its delays in care crisis, but President Obama needs to help reiterate it to each and every VA employee to ensure the department's focus is on pinpointing and solving problems, rather than downplaying them," he said. "In the meantime, OMI owes it to America's veterans and American taxpayers to provide an immediate and thorough explanation as to why it keeps reaching the same implausible conclusions in one report after another."
Read the OSC's letter to Obama here: