As a congressman, I met with Veterans Affairs officials over troubling reports of unsanitary VA nursing homes in Pennsylvania, including one patient with an open foot wound left unattended so long that maggots were found falling from the lesion. One VA medical center broke federal law by drawing blood samples from veterans for a research project without their consent, and also underwent a scathing investigation to determine how nearly 100 prostate cancer patients were treated with excessively high or low levels of brachytherapy radiation due to a lack of oversight — and no one had been punished.
As a veteran, I share the concerns of those who question inexcusable practices at VA hospitals, some brought to light in the recent scandal. At the same time, I recognize there is a vast improvement at VA facilities from when I entered service in the Vietnam era. As a young sailor home on leave in Delaware County in the mid-1980s, I suddenly had excruciating stomach pains and was directed to Philadelphia’s VA hospital. I didn’t want to go because of the VA’s poor reputation when I had entered service over a decade earlier, but I underwent a skillful emergency appendectomy and follow-up treatment. The key today is to fix what’s wrong, and recognize a lot that’s right to keep.
For example, under that Navy rubric, “expect what you inspect,” I authored the Transparency Act to mandate that all VA inspection reports be made public upon completion. In the cases of maggots in wounds and improper radiation treatment, there wouldn’t have been corrective actions if it weren’t for a Freedom of Information Act request that finally made the results public.
I also met with the VA’s neurologists to provide the option of having post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury treatments be handled — with VA oversight — in a veteran’s community-based private health center, so that veterans could be close to their loved ones. We also need to change the VA policy of not transferring the medical records of incarcerated veterans to prisons. And while we were successful in re-enrolling thousands of veterans making as little as $30,000 who were locked out of VA services by a congressional vote in 2003, we still don’t have all of them back in.
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I often relayed my concerns about the VA to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, someone for whom I have the deepest respect as I once watched him as Army chief of staff in the Pentagon unflinchingly inform his superiors of the enormity of the number of troops it would take to “settle” Iraq early in that war — knowing it would hurt his career. Shinseki’s recent departure left behind too many of those I would not go into battle with like I would with the general, that is, a Congress with many legislators who now excoriate the VA but were the very ones who repeatedly voted against budgets that would have addressed much of the VA’s problems. In their yelling for scalps, I’m concerned that those who voted against the VA’s budgetary requests will refuse to recognize the good aspects of the VA.
The VA serves close to 9 million veterans, including hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania. A recent study found that the risk of death was lower for a veteran if she is treated in a VA hospital than in a civilian hospital under Medicare Advantage. A veteran treated in a VA hospital is 16 percent more likely to receive recommended care than a veteran in a community hospital. The veteran is also 10 percent more likely to receive better care of chronic conditions, and 20 percent more likely to receive better preventative care. And VA care costs the taxpayer 20 percent less than Medicare. The VA also has been successful with electronic medical records, which have revolutionized health care for our vets and have been invaluable after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina destroyed paper records.
Unquestionably, those VA personnel responsible for the recent scandal must be held accountable. And we need to mandate transparency measures so we can hold those responsible to benchmarks, plus other measures that make the VA more responsive to veterans. But we also must appreciate the high level of performance in much of the VA, including so many employees who do care. If there is doubt on who really does care, it isn’t the senators and congressmen who spent months lambasting the VA and Gen. Shinseki but waited until the final days before their August recess to pass any reform legislation — in the meantime forcing the VA to send discharge warnings to veterans with traumatic brain injury in assisted-living homes. In D.C., political point-scoring is more important than our veterans’ peace of mind.