WASHINGTON — A House of Representatives committee blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday over a lack of progress and accountability in the aftermath of at least 23 preventable veteran deaths that were the result of delays in treatment at VA medical centers across the country.
One of the centers to come under heat was the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C., where six patients died as a result of not receiving care they needed, according to a VA report.
In the third full House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing about patient safety, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the panel, along with other lawmakers, expressed frustration with the VA’s unresponsiveness to requests for information. These included the steps the department has taken to discipline those responsible, as well as how funding meant to reduce backlogs and improve care has been spent.
In a report released Monday, the VA said it has identified 76 patients in its health care system whose care warranted an “institutional disclosure,” or a formal notification that a problem with the patient’s VA care is expected to result in death or serious injury.
Of those 76 patients, 23 died, and the deaths were primarily the result of delays in gastrointestinal care, the report said. The report did not state when the patients died.
Miller called the testimony that VA officials submitted to the committee “ridiculous.”
“It concerns me that my staff has been asking for further details on the deaths that occurred as a result of delays in care at VA medical facilities for months, and only two days before this hearing did the VA provide the information we have been asking for,” he said.
Barry Coates, an Army veteran who sought care at the Dorn VA Medical Center, testified about his experience with delays in the VA system that ultimately led to an ongoing battle with colorectal, liver and lung cancers.
Coates, who has seen four different VA doctors over the course of his treatment, said he never received an “institutional disclosure” or other formal notification or apology from the VA. He said he hopes his testimony will lead to measurable progress in VA operations and prevent other veterans from suffering as he has.
More than $1 million in funds were designated for reducing the 4,000-patient Dorn backlog, but only $200,000 was actually used for this purpose, according to a Veterans Administration inspector general’s report released in September.
The committee still has not received a straightforward answer about where the rest of the funds went, Miller told Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations for the Veterans Health Administration.
“I have tried to work with your committee,” Lynch said. “I have tried to share information we’ve obtained as we’re obtaining it. … We strive to be transparent.”
Of Coates’ testimony and the stories of veterans’ deaths, Lynch said, “I think it’s good that we hear these stories, that we not ignore the harm that has occurred.”
The VA also has been reticent about disciplinary actions it has taken on employees responsible for the delays, committee members said.
When asked if anyone lost his or her job at several of the sites where patient deaths occurred, including VA medical centers in Columbia, Memphis, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga., Lynch said he did not have that information.
“I’m troubled by whether or not firing someone is really the answer,” he said. “I think we need to be careful about punishing everybody for what happened at a few medical centers.”
However, committee members said the lack of accountability demonstrated by the VA was unacceptable in the face of preventable deaths.
“We are looking for specifics — data, metrics — but we never get them,” Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., told Lynch. “It’s just my feeling and my only conclusion that if you’re not willing to reveal the facts, that there’s something you don’t want the public to hear.”
Although Lynch called the VA’s relationship with the committee “constructive,” lawmakers said they were tired of hearing the same vague promises of reform.
“This is a bureaucracy that’s out of control,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. “If this happened in the civilian world … we would be in the streets with signs saying, ‘Shut them down.’”