Rage at VA health care failures isn't enough
The Arizona Republic
April 10, 2014
"So I ask you today, how many more vets will be allowed to suffer and die before someone is held accountable?"
— Barry Coates, a terminally ill veteran testifying to Congress
Pick your response: Rage or sorrow.
The horrors revealed at a House hearing this week cry out for ripping through the bureaucracy, stripping away the excuses, ousting those responsible and treating veterans the way they treated their country: with honor, respect and loyalty.
That seems like a no-brainer.
Yet this was the third House hearing in recent years on Veterans Administration mismanagement, incompetence and outright indifference to veterans' health needs. Whistleblowers and wronged patients have been raising alarm bells that sound loudly in Arizona.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said staff investigators found as many as 40 veterans died because of long waits for care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The system apparently hides wait times by keeping two sets of records.
That is not accidental, negligent or incompetent. It's intentional.
Miller ordered that records in Phoenix be preserved and an investigation take place. Perhaps this one will matter. Finally.
Dr. Sam Foote, who retired from the VA in December, provided The Arizona Republic with a Feb. 2 letter he sent to the VA inspector general seeking an investigation of "gross mismanagement of VA resources and criminal misconduct" that produced "systemic patient safety issues and possible wrongful deaths."
Copies of the letter went to Miller, Sen. John McCain, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
It was a follow up to allegations Foote made in October. He noted that inspector general investigators had substantiated his allegations, yet nothing changed.
"Patients are still dying," he wrote in the February letter.
One was Thomas Breen, who died in November at age 71. He served two decades in the Navy. When blood began to tint his urine, he sought an appointment with the Phoenix VA, his daughter-in-law said. He waited. And waited. And waited. The call telling him a date was available came one week after he died of undiagnosed bladder cancer.
Whistleblowers cite backlogged record keeping, poor mental health care, an emergency room swamped with vets whose condition had worsened while they waited for appointments, and hostile working conditions that drive away quality doctors and nurses.
Veterans tell stories of the hell that comes after returning from war.
Coates told the committee that he spent a year seeking a diagnostic test. By the time he got it, his cancer had spread. The surgery he then required left him impotent, incontinent and with a colostomy bag.
"Gross negligence of my ongoing problems ... has not only handed me a death sentence but ruined the quality of my life I have for the meantime," he told the committee.
Welcome home, soldier. You went, you served. You risked body, mind and soul. Now take a number and we'll get to you. Maybe.
Beyond the rage and sorrow this ugly reality evokes, there needs to be a sustained commitment to rout the culture of status quo at VA and turn it into a agency that serves the health care needs of veterans with the same determination the military demanded from them. Let the heads begin to roll.
Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. House of Representatives
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
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