Too much job security is part of the problem in the Department of Veterans Affairs and its medical system, U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., said Wednesday in Statesboro.
He held a roundtable discussion on veterans’ issues with invited guests in the Williams Center at Georgia Southern University. His discussions this week in Dublin, Statesboro and Augusta take place as the scandal over falsified records and long waits for appointments in the VA healthcare system is still unfolding. The controversy prompted the resignation Friday of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Barrow had called for Shinseki’s resignation and says he was the first Democrat in Congress to do so. But he now cautions that it shouldn’t be seen as the solution.
“While I called on the secretary to set an example and to resign in order to enable us to get new people to look at what happened on his watch, obviously it’s not going to be solved by replacing one person,” Barrow said in an interview.
He agrees with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on this point.
“The speaker of the House has been very correct all along to point out that the last thing we want to do is let one person serve as sort of a sacrificial lamb for a bureaucracy that’s got bureaucratic problems, for a system that is letting people down on a systematic basis,” Barrow said.
Prior to calling for Shinseki’s departure, Barrow co-sponsored a bill to give the secretary more authority to fire or demote about 450 of the VA’s senior employees. The bill, passed by the House on a 390-33 vote, would place more accountability on career administrators whose jobs are otherwise shielded by the civil service system, he said.
“It would remove some of the excess job security at the top and replace it with a little bit more accountability because right now, unless you serve at the pleasure of the president with Senate confirmation, it’s virtually impossible to fire you or discipline you,” Barrow said. “If you do a lousy job, they just find someplace else for you to do a lousy job.”
The bill will have to pass in the Senate and receive the president’s signature to become law.
“Even if it doesn’t happen, it’s shining a light on the problem,” Barrow said. “There’s too much job security, at all levels of the bureaucracy, and not enough accountability.”
About 30 people, including veterans’ organization leaders and representatives of health care facilities, including East Georgia Regional Medical Center, participated in the Statesboro roundtable. The discussion was closed to reporters, but Barrow’s staff had notified the newspaper and scheduled an interview for the meeting’s conclusion.
The three meetings are not limited to health care concerns.
“We’re also dealing with employers and educators because veterans aren’t just patients looking for the care they’ve been promised in a medical setting,” Barrow said. “They’re also folks looking for a job, other folks looking for opportunities for training and education. … These are all issues that are important, and I’m trying to hear from all the stakeholders.”
But it’s the VA medical system that has been in the heat of national controversy. The VA operates about 1,700 medical facilities nationwide, providing care to about 6.5 million veterans annually. Although the VA’s goal is a maximum 14-day wait for an appointment, the department’s own records have shown that veterans often wait much longer to see a doctor. At the VA hospital in Phoenix, employees reportedly kept a secret waiting list, sometimes placing patients on the official, two-week list months after they first sought an appointment. As many as 40 patients may have died while awaiting care, according to reports by the Associated Press.
Asked if privatization, such as giving veterans vouchers for care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, is an option, Barrow observed that the Veterans Health Administration, the medical portion of the department, already refers some patients to private providers for specialty care or more timely care.
“It’s an issue that’s being considered and all the options have to be on the table,” he said. “There are powerful arguments for it. My point is we already have a system where the VHA sends people out, and even that’s not working as well as it should. We’ve got to address all aspects of the problem.”
Some professionals from the regular, civilian health-care industry, including administrators of non-VA hospitals, are meeting with Barrow this week.
“There are issues of being reimbursed when the private sector is called in to take care of patients that the VHA can’t take care of on a timely basis,” Barrow said. “They have problems getting reimbursed. They have problems getting preclearance for some of the procedures they’ll be asked to do.”
Some Veterans of Foreign Wars leaders who attended the roundtable indicated that they like the care they receive at VA clinics and hospitals and believe the system can be fixed.
Byron Scogins, the commander of VFW Post 2776 in Millen and previously involved with VFW at a district and national level, said the recent news has distressed him immensely.
“When you’ve got soldiers dying, that’s just absolutely uncalled for, unnecessary, unprofessional,” said Scogins, 70, a Vietnam War veteran and recipient of multiple Purple Hearts. “I have been in two meetings with Gen. Shinseki and personally I like him, but I said very early on it was time for him to go. His comment about, ‘Well, I didn’t know it was going on,’ that doesn’t carry it.”
Shot three times while in Vietnam, Scogins, then an Army captain, was treated in various military and VA hospitals for 19 months after he returned. He later worked for the VA as a psychologist and manager in Miami and Memphis, Tennessee, and so knows the system from both sides, he said.
“I know the capability is out there to provide acceptable health care for veterans,” Scogins said. “It’s just a matter of putting the right people in the right jobs, making sure they’ve got the training and the financial support to do it, and right now they’ve got more than adequate financial support.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.