Government Affairs Committee
Access To VA Health Care
BY PETE PETERSON, CHAIR, AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS STAFF
For decades VVA has been pushing for greater accountability on how VA, particularly the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), spends its annual appropriations. VVA and many other veterans service organizations have warned the Undersecretary for Health and his senior staff repeatedly that they were creating too many expensive “middle-middle” staff positions that do not provide direct patient care.
It was not speculation on our part that Congress provided more money to VA to hire more clinicians. We knew that this was the case. It was the VSOs that effectively carried that message to the appropriators in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. But we were ignored.
Now, as the whole nation knows, the management of the veterans health care system has totally failed to fulfill its responsibilities. Most clinicians continue to provide good to very good medical care, despite the fact that there are too few of them to do the job effectively.
VVA sent the President a fourteen-point plan to address the immediate needs of veterans who depend on the VA health care system, but we have yet to receive an answer.
It is our contention that the VA health care system needs to be put into what is tantamount to receivership. One can design and implement systems to do the job better, and implement training programs to bring staff up to the cognitive skill levels needed for an efficient and effective health care delivery system. However, you cannot teach integrity and honesty. Folks either have that character trait or they do not. Clearly many of the managers at VHA do not have the innate honesty that is the hallmark of good leaders.
The clinicians deliver quality care in a timely way, but there just needs to be more of them. We need fewer supervisors and more people to provide care.
The managers need to be swapped out with people who understand their sacred trust and who are ready, in consultation with the veteran community, to do what is needed to get this system back on track.
Every time we think we have seen everything, the VA does something else that is so out of line that it takes one’s breath away. VVA joined with other VSOs to send a letter of outrage to Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, asking that he not only remove this contractor from VA pay, but that he take immediate steps to hold to account those VA staff who thought it would be a great idea to hire the most notorious of all nay-sayers regarding the toxic effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides and toxins as chief VA spokesman on this issue.
For four decades, this contractor has tried to obfuscate or hide the truth about the deleterious impact of Agent Orange. In fact, he has been paid to hide the truths regarding the negative health effects of Agent Orange and other phenoxy herbicides and organic phosphates used in Vietnam and elsewhere.
In a possible violation of ethics, VA’s contractor failed to disclose his 2009 recommendation to destroy the stored, toxic C-123s. He had advised the Air Force, in many memoranda, that unless the planes were destroyed, veterans might apply for presumptive service connection because of their exposures. He then congratulated the Air Force for carrying out the destruction in a manner “below the radar.” His opposition to C-123 veterans is anything but “below the radar.”
The contractor made many apparent misrepresentations during his June 16 presentation before the IOM, the most egregious of which was his use of photos of a reconditioned C-123, taken from a civilian owner’s website showing what the plane looks like today after the owner had rebuilt it. The consultant used these photos in an attempt to illustrate the 1972 results of Tail #664 and the other C-123s, claiming they had been thoroughly refurbished after Vietnam.
Actually, the photos he used show modern cockpit modifications. The cargo deck photo shows equipment used today by the civilian owner for attending airshows. Certainly, these were not photos of modifications performed in 1972, as his report detailed. Of particular concern is the contractor’s use of the borrowed photos to challenge other scientists’ work. We are troubled by such apparent deceptions.
While we would always rather focus on policies than personnel, in the case of this contractor, personnel is policy. America’s veterans deserve better.
In a related abuse of power, the VA has essentially gutted the VA Secretary’s Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC). The VA has tried to keep the Committee from sharing any reports with Congress or the public, and has tried to ensure that they do as they are told by the VA staff.
Not only did VA kick the real advocates off the RAC, they appointed a crony of former VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich and a political appointee who was supposed to be monitoring the performance and quality of the VHA for the Secretary of VA as a double-check on the regular chain of command. We do not know what he actually did on the tenth floor of the VA, but he sure did not do much of a job in keeping Secretary Shinseki informed of any developing problems in the VA hospitals
These two are supposedly the representatives of the veterans’ community. They do not represent VVA nor any other VSO. Instead, they are essentially there to ensure that the interests of veterans are swept aside.
VVA has called for the removal of these two and for the Acting Secretary to hold the people responsible for this travesty to account. Since that group of people might well include the current Chief of Staff for the VA, we do not think that truly holding people accountable for doing bad things to veterans will happen.
For this reason it is even more imperative for the Senate to quickly pass the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act of 2014, a bipartisan bill that has passed the House of Representatives unanimously. This bill would preclude the type of unsavory actions that the VA has engaged in in regard to the current Gulf War Advisory Committee, and make it more independent and less susceptible to intellectually and morally dishonest manipulation in the future.
All of this activity is very disheartening to many of us who served in Vietnam, as well as to our younger friends who served in the Gulf War or the two most recent wars. One veteran asked us recently whether the people currently at VA have declared war on anyone who has a toxic wound. Evidence to the contrary, we would hope not.
The National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS) was delivered to the VA Central Office more than six months ago. However, it still has not been delivered to Congress, nor been made available to veterans and the public. It has become clear that the VA is withholding permission for the researchers to submit articles to peer-reviewed professional journals for publication, and is also denying permission for the principal investigators to make presentations later in the summer to veterans groups, including VVA, and to professional bodies such as the American Psychiatric Association.
Now we hear that there is a move afoot to destroy the data, making it impossible to replicate the study again, or even to take a fresh look as the data. If this is so, then criminal charges—in addition to being fired—should be laid on those who try to do this.
We are optimistic that the Acting Secretary will do the right thing and stop this outrageous action before further damage is done.
Government Affairs Testimony
Below you will find topics of recent government relations testimony. Click on any of the summary links to read the testimony summary, or the complete testimony link to read or print the complete testimony.