(U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into alleged mismanagement and data falsification at the Veterans Health Administration.
That follows several days of frenetic activity on Capitol Hill where Democrats and Republicans have set aside their differences to unite on this issue.
In the course of a few days, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed bipartisan legislation calling for oversight at Department of Veterans Affairs.
During the same time frame, the VA released an internal audit that documents why three VA medical centers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are about to become subject to a formal investigation.
That follows mounting allegations of failing to serve veterans and manipulating data to make it seem veterans were being served in a timely manner.
Tuesday, a rare bipartisan bill, HR 4031, passed the U.S. House. It calls more oversight on the VA.
The House passed legislation ordering the VA to cover the cost of a veteran’s care at a non-VA hospital or clinic if that veteran can’t get the care at the VA medical center. The legislation passed without dissent, 426-0.
It mirrors proposed Senate legislation co-sponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
That follows an agreement on proposed legislation in the Senate on Monday, the same day three VA facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were tarred with failing grades.
The VA chief in West Texas and eastern New Mexico, Michael Kiefer, told reporters Tuesday those three facilities will be formally investigated.
Referring to attempts to reform the agency, Kiefer said the VA will move forward.
“It’s not a destination. It’s a journey,” Kiefer said. “It’s not something we’re going to solve and it’s going to remain solved.”
Kiefer defended the agency’s record in Texas, saying that 92 percent of veterans are seen within 30 days at a major facility in Big Spring, Texas. That’s a number challenged by veteran rights groups. And the VA admits four centers in Texas, among them Dallas and El Paso, rank in the top ten longest waits for new patients looking for mental health care.
Kiefer said the VA has a staffing problem that the agency will address.
“So that’s, you know, offering recruitment bonuses, retention incentives,” he said.
Translation — higher pay. The agency struggles to keep doctors because of relatively low salaries and stressful working conditions.
“We’re in the process of hiring, what’s the right term? Recruiter, recruiter. So that we’ll go out to trade events where providers congregate trying to get the value of working for the federal government in West Texas out there,” Kiefer said. “And it’s a leap of faith that it will pay off. But what’s the alternative, right?”
The El Paso VA medical center, one of the country’s largest, isn’t on the list of facilities needing formal investigation. The agency says 93 percent of veterans there are served within a month.
But Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke doesn’t buy that.
Following a survey conducted by his staff, O’Rourke told Marfa Public Radio through a senior aide that he wants to know if there’s a policy there that hides or distorts wait times at the VA.