Report: VA had 'corrosive culture' and 'chronic systemic failures'

The latest in a series of investigations into scandal at the US Department of Veterans Affairs finds “significant” failures and a culture leading to long wait times for treatment.

Juan Carlos Llorca/AP
David and Marianne Trujillo leave the Veterans Affairs facility in El Paso, Texas. Some VA facilities in Texas have among the longest wait-times in the nation for those trying to see a doctor for the first time, according to federal data.

Problems at the troubled US Department of Veterans Affairs – including a "corrosive culture" and “significant and chronic systemic failures” – have been officially confirmed in a new report ordered by President Obama.

Obama was briefed on the findings Friday by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who oversaw this latest investigation of VA failings, and acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson. Mr. Gibson assumed temporary VA management when former VA secretary Eric Shinseki stepped down last month over a growing scandal that included revelations of extended waits for veterans seeking medical appointments and alleged falsification of records regarding wait times.

"There's a strong sentiment among many veterans and stakeholders that in general VA provides high quality health care 'once you get in the door' and that the current system needs to be fixed, not abandoned or weakened," Mr. Nabors said after meeting with the President. "However, I also believe that it is clear that there are significant and chronic systemic failures that must be addressed by the leadership at the VA."

The Veterans Health Administration, which is part of the VA, oversees more than 1,700 health care facilities, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics, and serves nearly 9 million individuals a year. It’s the largest integrated health system in the US.

Among other things, this latest report on the VA cited a “corrosive culture.” Combined with an unrealistic 14-day standard for scheduling medical appointments, this led to widespread situations in which VA personnel manipulated records in order to make wait times appear shorter.

In a VA audit earlier this month, it was reported that more than 57,000 US military veterans have been waiting for 90 days or more for their initial medical appointments, and that an additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor.

At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee June 9, Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, said he was investigating 69 agency medical facilities nationwide for possible wrongdoing, up from 42 two weeks earlier.

A previous inspector general's investigation into the troubled VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an official, electronic waiting list.

Among other things, the report presented to the White House late Friday found that:

• As of June 23, the independent Office of Special Counsel, a government investigative arm, had more than 50 pending cases that allege threats to patient health or safety.

• One-fourth of all the whistleblower cases under review across the federal government come from the VA. The department "encourages discontent and backlash against employees."

• The VA's lack of resources reflects troubles in the health care field as a whole and in the federal government. But the VA has been unable to connect its budget needs to specific outcomes.

• The VA needs to better prepare for changes in the demographic profile of veterans, including more female veterans, a surge in mental health needs and a growing number of older veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday announced the departure of two more senior officials.

Robert Jesse, the current acting undersecretary for health, will complete his four-year term as principal deputy undersecretary for health on July 2, the Veterans' Affairs department said in a statement. In addition, Will Gunn, the department's general counsel, has resigned.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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