Opinion: Taking the VA to task for fudged admissions stats | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Taking the VA to task for fudged admissions stats

Ken Johnson
Free Press Opinion Columnist

Wow, do we have a hot scandal that gets worse every day!

It’s the Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics getting caught lying about how quickly (or slowly!) wounded vets are admitted for care.

Should we be surprised the VA’s 14-day maximum wait, evidently with bonuses for success, slipped a bit? And then it was hidden because sometimes a two-year wait would look bad on that 14-day record?

It turns out wait times have been tragic for years, but the unraveling scandal is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We’re now getting news daily of other troubles in the huge VA bureaucracy! Of course, with 1,700 facilities to manage around the country, including our own hospital here in Grand Junction, it is quite a large organization.

There are 171 hospitals all trying to deliver great health care to the wounded, a huge task. Many vets services in the $153 billion budget are partnerships with local providers.

Do you wonder if the real problem is that the folks in charge seem clueless about how to bring the VA into the 21st Century?

We get lawmaker posturing and ranting before the cameras and demands that heads roll. I now aim to keep a scorecard to see what actually comes out of all the revelations of problems and demands for changes. As we all know, big bureaucracies are very slow to adapt. Earlier scandals didn’t provoke Congress to act.

The VA used to be a military program run out of the Pentagon. About 1988 Congress changed that; it became the Veterans Administration. The Secretary is a cabinet officer with direct access to the president.

That change was supposed to streamline the whole raft of veteran’s benefits; instead about half the veterans hospital beds were closed (like Fitzsimmons in Denver) and more programs were added. Today it feels like it’s too big to manage.

Given the intense scrutiny right now, are some changes coming?

For a start, can we have the Inspector General reports cataloged so we can see, on one page, the areas that do not work? There are at least a half-dozen recent ones, all pointing out problems that have been ignored. Changes only come when, like the current scandal, they linger in the news and worse problems surface.

Maybe we can work out some ideas on what it will take to reform the entire VA system. If you can get bonuses for simple things like faking patient admission dates, it doesn’t feel like the VA will cure itself!

Do we need modern computers and software to speed changes along?

Shall we fire VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, as the sound-bites demand? Will it improve things?

This is an election year so I have modest hope that we’ll see some quick and positive changes made.

But as a focus on how difficult the task will be I share a comment of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a very capable administrator, from his book “DUTY.”

The VA is second in size to our largest agency, Defense. The two secretaries share many issues.

Gates reported he tried hard to get the unwieldy VA to re-structure some rules and procedures. He regretfully said he considers his inability to get it done a huge failure.

Hey, come to think of it, maybe President Obama could persuade Gates to take the challenge as a new duty! He already knows most of the problems.

GJ Free Press columnist Ken Johnson is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.

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