An important part of my job in Congress is making sure national Veterans Affairs leaders pay attention to Alabama and remain focused on improving the health care system our veterans depend on. That’s why this week I spoke from the House Floor to mark one year since former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid scandal, and to draw attention to the many problems still persisting at the Central Alabama VA.
Despite new legal tools and resources, we have not seen sufficient improvement in access to patient care. We haven’t seen it nationally, and we certainly haven’t seen it in Central Alabama.
In fact, VA medical centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee were recently identified as worst and second worst in the nation for extended delays in patient appointment completions. A Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System workload report at the end of April showed that more than 6,500 consults over 90 days were still pending, including more than half awaiting approval for non-VA care services.
I believe one reason for this lack of progress is that Washington has demonstrated a somewhat short attention span when it comes to fixing these problems.
We got their attention last year. Working with whistleblowers and the press, we were able to expose major instances of misconduct, negligence and cover-up within the system. The wait-list manipulation scheme, the missing X-rays, the falsified patient records, the crack house incident – all these major exposures could not be ignored by top VA leaders in Washington. A lot of nice promises were made to improve Central Alabama, but since our problems left the front page, VA’s follow-up has been insufficient.
Maybe that’s because we are depending on a broken bureaucracy to fix itself. Maybe it’s because we have been asking for VA leaders to intervene at this troubled system, rather than requiring them to. Maybe it’s time to change that, and I have an idea.
When a public school continues to fail to meet basic standards, what happens? The state department of education steps in to takeover and takes charge of turning the place around. The process isn’t pleasant, but everyone from principals and teachers to students and parents understand the consequences of failure to improve.
We need a similar mechanism at the VA when medical centers continually fail our veterans.
That’s why I am preparing legislation that would compel national VA leaders to step in to take over perpetually failing systems and make the Secretary of Veterans Affairs squarely accountable for making sure troubled systems like Central Alabama get the attention they need.
The bill is still in development, and I’ll update you on the latest as we proceed. One way or another, we are going to get their attention again.
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She is in her third term.