WASHINGTON — Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson delivered a grim message to senators on Wednesday about the state of VA healthcare, a system he portrayed as plagued by widespread wrongdoing, staff intimidation and shortages of clinical staff.
VA has lost the trust of veterans and the American people, he told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — something that can only be earned back through decisive corrective action and a new level of openness in the department’s operations.
“We understand the seriousness of the problems we face,” he said in his first appearance on Capitol Hill since taking the reins at VA after the resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki. “We own them. We’re taking decisive action to begin to resolve them.”
But if proper corrective steps are taken, Gibson said, the VA could regain veterans’ trust within two years.
Among those steps, he said, will be disciplinary action in the next week against employees at an unspecified VA health care facility. He would only say it was not the Phoenix facility, where the current scandal began after a whistleblower alleged that up to 40 patients died while languishing on a secret waiting list for medical appointments.
Later audits by the VA inspector general and by the White House showed the practice was widespread, and pointed out a “corrosive culture” and outdated technology throughout the VA, among other problems.
“There is nobody that wants to see this process move forward faster than I do,” Gibson said of the investigation into scheduling fraud.
Gibson got legislators’ attention when he added that VA will need an extra $17.6 billion in funding between now and 2017. The proposal, developed with the White House Office of Management and Budget, would address the causes of the scandal that has exploded in recent months over long wait times for medical care and fraudulent scheduling practices used to conceal delays.
“These funds address only the current shortfalls in clinical staff, space, information technology and purchase care necessary to provide timely, high quality care,” he said.
About $10 billion of that amount would go to hire 10,000 new clinicians and patient care staff, as well as to pay for private health care appointments for veterans unable to get a VA appointment within a reasonable time frame, he said.
Staffing levels in the past were based on budget availability rather than need, Gibson said.
“The No. 1 cause for scheduling difficulties was that there weren’t sufficient provider slots to be able to schedule patients into,” he said. “We’ve managed to a budget number … and the veterans wound up being the shock absorber in that process.”
Among other measures, Gibson said VA was moving to purchase a commercial, off-the-shelf scheduling system to address the department’s information technology problems. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, held up a 2003 VA report bemoaning a lack of capacity and the need for more staff. VA has never been funded at the level it needs to provide enough staff, he said.
“This is not new. They didn’t get the funding years ago, and now we’re playing catchup,” he said. “Do I think it’s a lot of money? Yes. Is it money well deserved for our veterans? Absolutely.”
But Sen Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said the committee had been very responsive to VA funding requests from Shinseki.
“It was almost like we’d salute when he said what he needed, and out the door he’d go with more money, and always the promise that we were doing better,” he said. “I think what you honestly need is competition” from private healthcare providers, he added.
Gibson also faced questions about recent allegations that falsification of scheduling stretches beyond VA healthcare and into processing of veterans claims.
Earlier this week, the VA inspector general said it was improperly scrubbing thousands of the oldest veteran claims from backlog estimates, undercutting claims it has slashed the wait list for benefits by 50 percent in the last year.
A nomination hearing for the man who could take over VA, former Procter & Gamble chief executive Bob McDonald, is scheduled in the Senate on Tuesday.