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Coburn: Greater Efforts Needed to Improve Treatment for Veterans

by Wendy Innes, published

Multiple reports over the last month have painted a stark picture of the situation that veterans face when seeking care through the Veterans Administration's (VA) health care system -- a benefit they earned with their service. Some of the incidents have resulted in the deaths of veterans, which just further proves how broken the VA really is. Unfortunately, for victims of substandard care at the VA, there is almost no accountability for these errors.

A simple Google search will turn up numerous cases of medical malpractice at VA health care centers, some that resulted in death. Some of the most egregious incidents include:

  • In New York, only half of 29 facilities had nurses adequate enough to perform their duties.
  • In Georgia, more than 5,000 beneficiaries went without consultations for gastrointestinal procedures.
  • In 2011, a veteran in Biloxi, Miss., died of lung cancer because he was not told that an X-ray 3 years earlier revealed two masses in his lungs. He was not referred for further evaluation or treatment.
  • In 2010, a veteran went into the VA facility in Dallas for a minor operation, but the procedure was botched when doctors mistakenly clamped off his carotid artery, robbing his brain of oxygen for 15 minutes. The result was a massive stroke that left the man paralyzed. He died a year later.
  • In Memphis, 3 patients died as a result of medication errors. One was given a drug when there was a well documented allergy to that drug, another was overdosed, and the third wasn’t given vital medication at all.

There are thousands more individual stories of malpractice, far more than one article can contain, and they keep stacking up. In February, it was found that employees at the VA Greater Los Angeles Medical Center admitted to destroying thousands of patient records because requests for tests and treatment was damaging the hospitals efficiency numbers.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician who trained in VA facilities, wrote in an opinion piece published on Fox News last month detailing how broken the VA system is.

"Sadly, due to our substandard veterans’ health care system, the risks for our brave soldiers continue long after they return home." Coburn wrote. "In 2012, the VA took an average of 260 days to complete a veteran’s claim, according to the non-partisan Governmental Accountability Office."

Indeed it is not uncommon for veterans to wait 6 months or more for initial appointments. Follow ups and tests can take just as long. Disability claims can take years.

“Veterans are waiting 5 years or more,” said Joe Moore, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that specializes in VA disability appeals. “No veteran should ever face stacks of medical bills, eviction, or other problems because VA let the veteran’s disability claim appeal gather dust for 5 years.”

In his opinion piece, Coburn addressed the $24 billion omnibus bill that was touted to improve care for veterans, but fell short of the votes needed to pass.

Of the bill, Coburn said:

"The bill will only enable Washington politicians to say they are helping veterans while continuing to turn a blind eye to a broken and mismanaged Veterans Administration health system."

Another part of the huge problem is the lack of accountability as noted in a July 2013 report from the GAO. According to the report, the VA routinely rewards incompetent managers with bonuses despite allowing obviously poor conditions to thrive and who show little interest in correcting the deficiencies in care that veterans face.

“The performance pay policy gives VA’s 152 medical centers and 21 networks discretion in setting the goals providers must achieve to receive this pay, but does not specify an overarching purpose the goals are to support,” the GAO reported.

One example showed that an executive in the Washington, D.C. area received almost $60,000 in bonuses, despite having a backlog of claims that increased seven-fold, leaving vets waiting more than 4 months for services.

Another example found that the manager of a VA clinic where vets were exposed to HIV and Hepatitis still received almost $25,000.

The VA did not return requests for comment.

"Congress could enact a few common sense reforms that would dramatically improve the lives of our veterans," Coburn noted.

He went on to say that veterans should be able to get care in their own communities instead of being forced to get care at VA clinics, often a long way from home. He also said that something needs to be done to ensure that those administering claims are serving veterans, instead of their unions or themselves.

Unfortunately that might not be so easy. Government hiring and firing rules keep those executives and managers who are responsible for these shortcomings from being terminated. Until that changes, the problems within VA health care will continue.

"There is no question we need to greatly improve our efforts to meet our promises to those who put their lives on the line for our county in this current generation of veterans, and veterans of all eras. In fact, we have a moral obligation to do so," Coburn wrote. "But more dollars and more promises alone will not save and improve the lives of our courageous veterans who are forced to navigate an appallingly broken VA system."

Indeed it won't.

Coburn ended by saying:

"It’s time for politicians in Washington to do what our soldiers have already done – put our political lives on the line and make the hard decisions necessary to reform a system upon which so many of our veterans depend."

Photo retrieved from Daily Kos

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