U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., toured the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix on April 11, 2017. Roe is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and the chairman of a House committee that played a key role in exposing wrongdoing addressed the VA’s progress and what still needs to be improved.
Phoenix’s VA hospital on Tuesday marked the third anniversary of a nationwide scandal over veterans health care by hosting the head of a congressional committee that played a key role in exposing patient deaths in a system of delayed care.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, toured the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center and afterward stressed continuing efforts to provide more timely appointments and enhanced accountability at America’s roughly 150 veterans hospitals.
Roe, a physician who served in the military, said the addition of about 800 new staff positions at the Phoenix VA is evidence of improvement.
The hospital at Indian School Road and Seventh Street became the epicenter of a nationwide controversy in 2014, when former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., then chairman of the House panel, announced that up to 40 Arizona veterans had died awaiting care in a system plagued by long delays and phony data.
Subsequent investigations verified the original allegations and revealed that phony appointment data, mismanagement, whistleblower reprisal and other problems were systemic throughout the VA.
Amid probes by Congress and the VA Office of Inspector General, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was replaced, the $15 billion Veterans Choice Act was passed and major reforms were undertaken.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who accompanied Roe, said the department still faces major challenges, but added, “I am glad to see there has been tremendous work … to make a change.”
Sinema said she bumped into a veteran during Tuesday’s Phoenix VA tour and asked him about the care.
“He told me, ‘Three years ago it was crap, and today it was better,’ ” she said.
Roe and Sinema said the Choice Act, which enables long-waiting patients to get VA-subsidized care from private providers, suffered from an imperfect rollout but has improved.
They predicted President Donald Trump soon will sign a measure that continues the federal funding.
Meanwhile, they said, legislation known as the VA Accountability Act already has passedthe House and appears likely to win Senate approval. They said that measure would give new VA Secretary David Shulkin authority to expeditiously fire employees for malfeasance, and to hire workers quickly.
VA reform efforts have received mixed reviews from veterans, advocacy groups, employees and politicians.
In October, The Arizona Republic, which first reported on the scandal, published a detailed analysis of improvements and setbacks.
The Phoenix medical center’s progress also has been spotty. It remains among the lowest-rated VA hospitals and continues to struggle with wait times, but it has increased staffing, capitalized on the Choice Program and become more transparent.
During three years of negative publicity, the hospital also experienced significant workload increases.
The number of enrolled patients rose to 89,207 from 84,727, according to VA records, and outpatient visits jumped nearly 15 percent, to 1 million.
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