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Murray Decries Lack of Honesty, Leadership at VA as Report Reveals Manipulation of Wait Times for Health Care Appointments

Sep 12 2007

As Petraeus testifies, Murray questions impact of "surge" on VA care

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(Washington, D.C.) –U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke on the Senate floor today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General's report released yesterday that details widespread false reporting in wait times for VA health care appointments. 

"How can we be expected to trust this Administration about the continuation of a "surge" when they continue to cover up the true costs of this war," Murray questioned in her speech. "If the VA had been frank about waiting times and backlogs from the beginning, we would have been able to invest in busy facilities and allocate resources properly."

Yesterday's report revealed that only 75 percent of veterans waited less than 30 days for health care appointments. Senator Murray had previously gotten assurances from VA officials, including Secretary Jim Nicholson, that 96 percent of all veterans seeking primary care and 95 percent of veterans seeking specialty care were seen within 30 days of their desired appointment date. 

The following are Senator Murray's full remarks on the Senate floor:

Mr. President, I rise today – after two days of testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker – to talk about a subject that we've still heard virtually no discussion of:  The impact of this war on our service members and veterans.

Mr. President, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have now spent countless hours in an attempt to sell both Congress and the American people on the virtues of the President's surge.  

Their aim is to convince us to spend:

  • More time
  • More money
  • And more lives in Iraq

Yet, we have heard precious little about the impact of the surge on the men and women who are actually on the battlefield fighting.

This is a disturbing omission that leaves me, and I’m sure thousands of military families across the country, deeply unsettled and greatly concerned for the future of our nation’s plan to take care of these heroes.

Mr. President, we all know that going to war has a profound effect on our men and women in uniform, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no exception.

As the Iraq War now enters its fifth year, it is clear that the fighting overseas has taken a tremendous toll on the lives of our troops who have served this nation so honorably and on their families who have supported them so fully. 

Yet over and over again – in their sales job – this administration has either failed to make the cost of caring for our wounded warriors a priority – or, as we found this week – blatantly misled Congress and the American people about the cost.

Unfortunately, on Monday – the same day that General Petraeus appeared in the House to talk about the results of the surge – we learned from the VA Inspector General that the department repeatedly understated the wait times of injured veterans seeking care. 

How can we be expected to trust this Administration about the continuation of a "surge" when they continue to cover up the true costs of this war?

Mr. President, Administration officials – including Secretary Nicholson himself – have repeatedly told Congress and the American people that:

  • 96 percent of all veterans seeking primary care; and
  • 95 percent of veterans seeking specialty care were seen within 30 days of their desired appointment date. 

The Inspector General found that in reality, only 75 percent of veterans had waited less than 30 days.

In FY 2006, the VA underestimated the number of patients it would see by 45,000. For the current fiscal year (FY 2007), the VA has been forced to revise its projection up by 100,000 veterans.

Now the VA is projecting that it will see 263,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets in 2008, yet I am told by some that the VA should actually be preparing to care for more than 300,000 returning veterans.

Frankly, I think it's very important that we don't underestimate this number. We've seen the past failures in the VA to accurately project the numbers, and I think it's important that this committee get it right. 

The VA's fiscal year 2008 budget also assumed a decrease in the number of inpatient mental health patients, when all signs point to an increase in need.

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to ask VA Secretary Nicholson how the President's escalation of the war would impact caring for our veterans. 

He told me it would have a – quote – "minimal" impact. 

Not only does this statement fly in the face of reason, it boggles the mind.

I told Secretary Nicholson:

"When the President has proposed a surge in troops to Iraq, when the men and women in uniform are being deployed for their second and third tours of duty, and when more and more of our troops are coming home with PTSD and other mental health care needs, I don't understand how the VA can assume that they will treat fewer patients for inpatient mental health care."

The VA Secretary's duty is to protect veterans, not a dishonest Administration.

If the VA had been frank about waiting times and backlogs from the beginning, we would have been able to invest in busy facilities and allocate resources properly.

If we were getting accurate information and not being served a political line, we could serve our veterans.

Unfortunately, based on our experiences with VA leadership over the past few years, I have serious doubts about the level of frankness we can expect from a VA that has tried to minimize the cost, both in money and in lives, of this war. 

This spring – as our military was "surging" in Iraq - we learned that VA officials received bonuses – while veterans faced waiting lines and backlogs for benefits.  This is just plain wrong. 

Senior career officials throughout the VA were receiving a generous package of more than $3.8 million in payments by the financially strapped agency – as our veterans waited up to a year to see a doctor and VA officials misled Congress and the American people.

This week's IG report found:

"…that schedulers at some facilities were interpreting the guidance from their managers to reduce waiting times as instruction to never put patients on the electronic waiting list…This seems to have resulted in some 'gaming' of the scheduling process."

Were officials receiving bonuses for cooking their books on wait times?  In light of this week's report, it seems like a fair question.

The Inspector General's report on the VA's failure to provide an accurate account of how long our veterans are waiting for care is a frustrating reminder of the agency's need for honesty and leadership.

Whether the VA's numbers were intentionally skewed or incompetently reported, the result is the same – our veterans pay the price.

I have long said that the VA provides excellent care to veterans, once they get in the door.

The VA's:

  • long  term focus on patients,
  • its integrated delivery model,
  • and its first-rate health IT system provide distinct advantages over private sector care, and we need to keep it that way. 

But too often, getting in the door is a probleMr. All of us have heard from veterans in our home states who have waited months to see a primary care doctor.  Some veterans have even had to wait years to get surgery.

For too many years under this Administration, veterans have been “last in line,” and we in Congress have had to fight the Administration tooth and nail to meet their needs.

It is clear that five years into this war the VA is still not on a wartime footing to deal with this problem. 

It is past time for the VA to put an end to the pattern of dishonesty that has plagued them.

From exaggerated reports of past successes, to failures to present real funding needs, to poor conditions at facilities – the VA is not coming clean with the American people. And every time the VA tries to save political face it ends up costing our veterans.

No matter how they feel about the war, Americans support our veterans and we are ready to do whatever it takes to get them care. But without an honest assessment of their needs, we can't provide that support.

The President must quickly send up a nominee to fill the position of VA Secretary who will be an honest advocate who will fill the needs of current and future veterans and honor their sacrifice with true service.

I am looking to find somebody in this position that we can trust who will bring about a culture of change.  If we are not getting accurate information, if we are being told a happy picture and not getting the reality, we cannot serve our nation's veterans. 

The men and women who have served in our military have born significant burdens of war.

They have assumed great risk for our country, and they have sacrificed life and limb to protect our freedoms.

They kept their promise to serve our nation.

It is only right that we keep our promise to serve theMr. Our nation has a moral obligation to care for those who have served this country in uniforMr.  That means being honest about the cost.