Remember in 2016 when the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald compared veterans’ waiting an absurdly long time for medical appointments to kids waiting in line at Disneyland? Well, that was just one of the many unconscionable things that happened under President Obama’s watch.
It was obvious that the VA wasn’t at all concerned with patient wait times, as indicated by reports published in April of 2016 that found supervisors instructing employees to falsify wait times and other manipulations at VA centers in at least seven states. These reports uncovered a decades-worth of veteran wait times reduced to zero minutes in the official books all across America and Puerto Rico. In many of these cases, the manipulation happened after the VA department promised to remedy the falsifications after its practices came to light in the Eric Shinseki-era of VA leadership. That’s when an investigation into the Phoenix VA system revealed gross negligence on the part of the federal government leading to the death of 35 veterans left waiting for care that never came.
When McDonald took over Shinseki’s scandal-ridden chair in 2014, he promised to bring a level of trust that was previously lacking. However, it became clear very quickly that wait times weren’t decreasing at all, and if they were, it was very subtle. McDonald said that the average time a veteran waits for an appointment was three to six days. Yet, it was discovered that the VA calculated wait times very differently than the patients did. The VA began counting days once a scheduler returns the veterans call for an appointment, while the patient would obviously begin counting the second he hangs up after making the request.
The VA even came up with a $10 billion program that would help veterans who live over 40 miles away from a VA hospital get treatment at a non-VA facility. But at least 70,000 of those appointments took a month or more to transpire.
The budget for the VA was well over $160 billion, but even that can’t prevent severely misguided attempts at great care for our veterans. When a new VA hospital was completed in Aurora, Colorado in 2015, the department overspent by at least $1 billion. Adding insult to injury, it was learned that over $6 million was spent on art. VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller clarified that this was spent on “art and consulting services.” He further embarrassed the VA by pointing out that one art display cost nearly $300,000.
“[It] displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in — wait for it — in Morse code,” he said. “It actually lights up.”
So, what does Donald Trump do with this morass? He appointed David Shulkin to head up the VA, who was confirmed with unparalleled support. Then, Shulkin hit the ground running. Jim Geraghty reports on all that he has done in merely 5 months:
- The department announced last week that between President Trump’s inauguration and July 3, it had fired 526 employees, demoted another 27, and temporarily suspended another 194 for longer than two weeks.
- In April, the department launched a new website that lets veterans compare the wait times at its facilities and view Yelp-style reviews of each facility written by previous patients.
- Veterans Health Administration’s Veterans Crisis Line — designed for those struggling with PTSD, thoughts of suicide, and other forms of mental stress — is now answering “more than 90 percent of calls within 8 seconds, and only about one percent of calls are being rerouted to a backup call center.” A year ago, an inspector general report noted that “more than a third of calls were being shunted to backup call centers, some calls were taking more than a half hour to be answered and other callers were being given only an option to leave messages on voicemail.”
- At the end of June, Shulkin unveiled the world’s most advanced commercial prosthetic limb — the Life Under Kinetic Evolution (LUKE) arm — during a visit to a VA facility in New York. Veteran amputees demonstrated the technology, a collaboration among the VA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the private sector. (The name alludes to the lifelike robotic hand that Luke Skywalker is fitted with in The Empire Strikes Back.)
- In May, Shulkin said the department had identified more than 430 vacant buildings and 735 underutilized ones that cost the federal government $25 million a year. He said that most of the buildings are not treatment facilities and could profitably be closed or consolidated. Of course, if he actually attempted to close or consolidate some of the buildings, he might face a controversy along the lines of those touched off by military-base-closing announcements in recent decades.
Because this doesn’t fit the “we hate Trump, who’s a crazy, incompetent leader” narrative, you probably haven’t heard of any of these radical improvements. What the VA is doing is important and good… and the American people should know.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
h/t National Review