The Veterans Affairs Department continues to struggle to provide timely, decent health care to veterans — a weakness that warrants extra attention among all federal programs, according to a government report released Feb. 11.
Citing the growing demand for health services among disabled and aging veterans, as well as the challenges of managing a new $10 billion program designed to let former service members receive care from non-VA doctors, the Government Accountability Office listed VA health care as one of the federal government's "high-risk" programs for 2015.
This is the first time the department has landed on the biennial list.
According to GAO, the federal government's comptroller general has written numerous reports and made multiple recommendations to VA to fix problems at its Veterans Health Administration — ranging from hospitals failing to track patient appointments or document treatment errors and suicides to insufficient oversight of employees and leadership.
But GAO says more than 100 of these recommendations have yet to be addressed.
With VA undertaking its multibillion Veterans Choice program, and also striving to address problems within its 150 medical centers and more than 800 clinics, the department must be focused, according to the report.
"These risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, quality, and safety of veterans' health care, along with other persistent weaknesses we have identified in recent years, raise serious concerns about VA's management and oversight of its health care system," the report noted.
While the $56 billion VA health system provides care to 9 million veterans, questions over the quality of that care have dogged VA for the past four years, peaking in 2014 with a scandal that found veterans had waited months for appointments at facilities nationwide — and some died during their waits.
Further investigation found that some VA medical centers had manipulated data on patient wait times to hide the problem from leadership, veterans and the general public. The scandal led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
New VA Secretary BobMcDonald has promised to overhaul the bureaucracy and rebuild veterans' trust in the system. In an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, McDonald said being on the GAO's list is actually part of his plan to fix VA.
McDonald said he met with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and "encouraged him to put us on the high-risk list."
"Why?" he asked rhetorically. "We're a health care system. We're one of the largest businesses in this country. ... I want to be on that list. I want to shine light on what we're doing. I want to improve. And that's what we're working to do."
In its report, the GAO recommended that VA resolve the problems previously identified and follow through on recommendations expected from consultants as well as a 15-member congressional commission required under the Veterans Choice Act to assess the state of the VA health system.
It also recommended VA pay attention to guidance from the department's own inspector general as well as oversight by Congress.
Speaking after the release of the GAO report, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, promised to continue bird-dogging VA's activities in the new Congress.
Miller said he believes McDonald "is doing what he can to turn the department around."
"But given VA's past struggles with transparency, honesty and accountability, we can't afford to take anything other than a 'trust but verify' approach with the department in all of its activities," Miller said.