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WASHINGTON — Overworked staff, inefficient hiring practices and inadequate technology continue to play havoc with patient scheduling at VA health centers, according to a new report — findings very similar to those in a 2008 study that the VA never acted on.

The reporting, done by the Northern Virginia Technology Council between Sept. 15 and Oct. 29, outlines persistent problems in both the work culture and scheduling practices of the VA less than two weeks before VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s self-imposed Veterans Day deadline to implement major reforms to the scandal-plagued agency.

Compounding the many problems already brought to light by whistleblowers, the report says overwork is causing excessive turnover, a problem compounded by a slow hiring process, which leads to inexperienced employees having trouble with the scheduling system.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is reference to a 2008 study by Booz Allen Hamilton that found many of the same problems, and was apparently ignored.

“The recommendations of this report echo those of the earlier (Booz Allen Hamilton) wait times report and suggest that the issues identified are representative and enduring,” the new report says.

Sometimes simple communication breakdowns between departments mean patient follow-up appointments get dropped, Bobbie Kilberg, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, said in a conference call Thursday.

In August, McDonald laid out his Road to Veterans Day agenda. While the plan’s goals were vaguely worded, one key change was “strengthening lines of communications,” an area that came in for significant criticism in the report.

“It’s amazing how many people just aren’t talking to each other,” Kilberg said.

The report was required as part of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, passed to overhaul the VA. It was based on visits to two Virginia VA health care centers, but Kilberg said she believes the findings and recommendations can be applied nationally.

“VA appreciates the work of the NVTC, and notes that the majority of the findings in the report appear to be consistent with what VA has identified as areas of improvement, and in numerous cases, mitigation strategies have begun to be implemented,” according to a statement from the VA in response to the report. “VA looks forward to further evaluation of the recommendations to assess those that are ‘feasible, advisable, and cost-effective’ for implementation.”

Among the report’s 11 recommendations:

The VA should redesign the human resources and recruitment process. Specifically, hiring is done too slowly due to an inefficient process and staffing problems. VA should prioritize recruitment, retention and training for clerical and support staff. The VA hires reactively instead of pro-actively and many employees quit because they are overworked, causing high turnover. The VA needs to pay people more to better compete with the private sector for employees. The VA needs to replace antiquated scheduling technology and make better use of available technology. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who was a catalyst for the report, visited several Virginia VA health care centers and said he was “astonished” to see some of the antiquated systems in use.

“They were basically cobbling together 1980s software,” he said in the conference call.

While Warner remains supportive of McDonald, he said there is much still to be done to improve the VA’s workplace.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary McDonald to make sure these recommendations actually get implemented and don’t just end up on a shelf,” he said.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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