VA fails first dead­line test in wake of wait list scan­dal

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JAC­QUE­LINE KLIMAS

The VA ad­mit­ted Wed­nes­day that it will miss a dead­line to get vet­er­ans their new Choice health cards, fail­ing on the first key test Congress gave the trou­bled depart­ment and new Sec­re­tary Bob McDon­ald in the wake of the wait list scan­dal.

Mr. McDon­ald said in a blog post­ing that the cards will be mailed out in three phases be­gin­ning now and ex­tend­ing into next year — though all of the cards were sup­posed to have been mailed by Tues­day un­der the law Congress passed this sum­mer.

Vet­er­ans who have been wait­ing more than 30 days for care will be among those still wait­ing for their care cards after this week, Mr. McDon­ald said.

“VA has signed con­tracts with two pri­vate health care com­pa­nies to help VA ad­min­is­ter the Vet­er­ans Choice pro­gram,” Mr. McDon­ald wrote in the post. “We will be­gin im­ple­ment­ing this ben­e­fit on Nov. 5, as re­quired by law. A call cen­ter is now op­er­a­tional to an­swer your ques­tions and ver­ify your el­i­gi­bil­ity for this pro­gram.”

The depart­ment has known for some time that it would miss the dead­line but didn’t ask Congress for an ex­ten­sion on the law’s im­ple­men­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to a vet­er­ans ad­vo­cate fa­mil­iar with the bill’s im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Congress had said the VA’s abil­ity to send out the cards on time was a key test for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Mr. McDon­ald, whom the pres­i­dent tapped to re­place Sec­re­tary Eric K. Shin­seki. Mr. Shin­seki re­signed over the sum­mer after re­ports sur­faced that dozens of vet­er­ans may have died while await­ing care at VA clin­ics.

Even as the depart­ment tries to im­ple­ment pro­grams to fix the wait time prob­lems, more re­ports of care is­sues are sur­fac­ing. Nurses found a quad­ri­plegic pa­tient at a Hamp­ton Roads VA hos­pi­tal un­re­spon­sive dur­ing rounds but were un­able to tell the fam­ily how long he had been in that state, ac­cord­ing to a VA in­spec­tor gen­eral re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day.

The pa­tient later died. Though the re­port found that nurses did not follow a pol­icy to check on the pa­tient ev­ery half-hour, it could not de­ter­mine if the fail­ure di­rectly led to his death.

Mr. McDon­ald briefed the pres­i­dent Wed­nes­day on where the care cards and his other plans for his first three months in of­fice stand. The pres­i­dent thanked him for his work and said he wants him to con­tinue try­ing to re­duce wait times and fo­cus on home­less­ness among vet­er­ans, a White House of­fi­cial said.

The White House state­ment made no men­tion of whether Mr. Obama was sat­is­fied with the timetable for send­ing out the choice cards.

Iraq and Afghanista­n Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica said it is “dis­ap­pointed” in the VA for miss­ing the dead­line.

“This is another fum­bled op­por­tu­nity to de­liver for our na­tion’s vet­er­ans or be fully trans­par­ent about an in­abil­ity to do so,” said Paul Rieck­hoff, IAVA’s founder and CEO.

The Choice Card pro­gram al­lows vet­er­ans wait­ing more than 30 days for an ap­point­ment or liv­ing more than 40 miles from a VA fa­cil­ity to seek care out­side the VA health care sys­tem. It was in­sti­tuted as a re­ac­tion to al­le­ga­tions ear­lier this year that vet­er­ans died or re­ceived poor qual­ity care while wait­ing on se­cret lists.

The law that cre­ated the pro­gram states that the sec­re­tary must is­sue a card to each veteran not later than 90 days after the sign­ing of the bill, which falls on Nov. 5. Cards mailed out Tues­day would be com­pli­ant with the law, but those sent out in sub­se­quent phases will have missed the dead­line.

A VA spokes­woman pro­vided a doc­u­ment point­ing to other progress the depart­ment has made since the law was passed, in­clud­ing ex­pand­ing a schol­ar­ship el­i­gi­bil­ity to spouses of ser­vice mem­bers who died in the line of duty and con­tract­ing MITRE Cor­po­ra­tion to con­duct in­de­pen­dent as­sess­ments of VA health care pro­cesses.

The first group of vet­er­ans to re­ceive their cards will be those who live more than 40 miles from a VA fa­cil­ity. Those cards are “cur­rently be­ing sent,” the blog post said.

The sec­ond group of vet­er­ans — those who have been wait­ing more than a month for care — should re­ceive the cards “shortly there­after,” the blog said.

Fi­nally, in De­cem­ber or Jan­uary, all other vets will re­ceive their cards in case they need to go out­side the VA in the fu­ture, the blog says.

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