WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials are promising swift fixes to their physician monitoring practices after a scathing report this week accusing department staffers of failing to report potentially dangerous doctors to appropriate authorities.
“We need to do much better,” Gerard Cox, VA’s acting deputy under secretary for health for organizational excellence, told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “I can’t excuse that in the past adequate oversight has not been provided.”
Earlier in the week, a Government Accountability Office report blasted Veterans Health Administration officials for what they see as systemic failures in the agency’s documentation and investigation of complaints against clinical care providers.
Of five sites studied, researchers found proper documentation for nearly half of the 148 complaints at five VA sites. At least 47 cases were ignored until investigators raised concerns. Of those that were addressed, some took months or years to move forward.
In addition, of nine physicians with documented problems that should have been reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank from the five sites, only one was. None of those complaints were forwarded to state licensing boards.
Randall Williamson, director of health care for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, called the findings unsettling because the lack of reporting could allow physicians with poor or negligent work histories to continue in VA or private-sector care without interruption.
Lawmakers agreed, calling it the latest oversight misstep at the veterans bureaucracy.
“Refusing or failing to adhere to reporting requirements puts not just veterans, but all patients across the country, at risk of receiving substandard health care,” said Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., chairman of the committee’s oversight panel.
“These findings show a disappointing lack of commitment to the veterans receiving care from the agency and facilities charged with their well-being.”
Cox said following the GAO report, VA has instituted a series of new policies to better educate administrators about their reporting responsibilities and better punish officials who fail to take the work seriously.
Among the changes are a broader review process to ensure employment dispute settlements don’t include promises of omitting complaint reports and interim guidance next month from VA on timeliness expectations for those filings. New policy regarding the issue will be drafted by the end of fiscal 2018, Cox said.
He called the findings “troubling” but also said he is confident that the changes will identify problem employees and establish greater oversight for department officials.
Committee members responded to that with skepticism.
“This (reporting) is something that every hospital does,” said Phil Roe, R-Tenn. chairman of the committee and a retired physician. “I find it astonishing we have medical center directors who we would have to educate about this.”
Several said the core problem lies with lax oversight throughout VA management, despite years of promises that the culture within the department is changing to be more accountable and customer focused.
The GAO report comes amid a Capitol Hill debate over the future of VA health care programs, with proposals to allow more veterans to seek care outside the department’s medical centers in an attempt to improve wait times and system performance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.