U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, laid out plans Sunday to address the Veterans Affairs scandal as well as the health care system’s history of inadequate service.
The lawmaker’s plans come two days after Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over allegations that when faced with long delays for medical appointments VA staff were cooking books in order to protect bonuses received for meeting performance goals. There have been allegations that some patients died waiting for medical care.
The deception apparently duped high-level VA administrators. In the days leading up to his resignation, Shinseki indicated he was unaware records were being falsified.
“Let me be clear, Secretary Shinseki’s resignation will not fix all the problems with the VA,” Tester said. “We must fix the systematic issues at the department that lead to a lack of accountability, transparency, long wait times and a shortage of trained medical providers.”
To address fraudulent VA activity, Tester said he was proposing more Justice Department resources for targeting VA criminal activity. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee member also said the VA’s office of Medical Inspector reports of the VA needed to be made public, which has never been required before.
Tester, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is allocating $5 million for VA Inspector General investigations into VA facilities across the country. He is also proposing no bonuses to VA medical directors until the Inspector General investigation is finished.
On May 27, the Medical Inspector began investigating VA operations in Montana. Tester said regardless of what federal disclosure policy was at the time the Montana report was finished, he planned to release his copy to the public.
Two days after the Medical Inspector’s investigation of Montana began, VA officials announced that Christine Gregory, Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System director, would retire at the end of June to spend more time with her family. A VA spokesman said there would be no further comment from Gregory or the VA about her departure after 16 months as Montana director. Gregory has worked 32 years for the VA.
Tester said he doesn’t know of a link between Gregory and the VA scandal, or why the resignations of the Montana director and Shinseki were just a day apart. He acknowledged that the timing of the resignations didn’t look good. He planned to be in contact with the Inspector General about what was found in Montana.
“I can only go by what Christine told me. She told me she was leaving because she had some health issues, and she was losing family time she would never get back,” Tester said. “She has been with the VA for 32 years and she thought it was time to move on, but we will see what IG finds.”
Tester had worked both with Gregory and Shinseki on Montana VA issues. When Gregory was appointed Montana director, the senator told the media he had high hopes that Gregory, an Eastern Montana native, would be able to address some of the challenges unique to VA health care in her rural home state.
Tester had also brought to Montana Shinseki as well as former secretary James Peake, of the President George W. Bush administration. Working with those two secretaries, Tester secured seven new VA outpatient clinics in Cut Bank, Hamilton, Havre, Lewistown, Libby, Great Falls, Missoula and Plentywood. Clinic services in Billings were also expanded and a new mental health care facility was created in Helena.
Nine in 10 veterans who access VA services are satisfied, Tester said, but getting through the door is a problem and more medical professionals are necessary to meet veterans’ medical needs.
The senator said he has proposed legislation to attract professionals to VA medical jobs by offering federal tuition assistance and help repaying medical school loans.
To get patients medical care more quickly, Tester is proposing an expansion of “Project ARCH,” or Access Received Closer to Home. ARCH, which allows veterans without easy VA access to receive care from non-VA providers, was launched at in five communities, including Billings, in 2013. Tester said an expanded program would better help veterans in rural Montana.
However, the senator stopped short of supporting a supplanting VA clinics and hospitals with a private care system for veterans. Conservative lawmakers on Sunday news talk shows were repeatedly calling for cutting all VA services except for a few specialty facilities and then promising federal payment for any veteran visit to a private doctor.
“Privatizing the VA will result in worse care for veterans because medial professionals will no longer be answering to patients, but instead shareholders,” Tester said.
The senator will hold listening sessions with Montana veterans this summer to get their thoughts on fixing Veterans Affairs.