BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian government editor firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do a better job measuring the time it takes vets to get medical appointments and to speed up the processing of their disability benefit claims to deliver the care they need, say reports by congressional auditors requested by Rep. Kevin McCarthy and others.
Officials from the offices that were audited have generally agreed with the recommendations and vowed to improve their practices, according to the Government Accountability Office reports to be released today.
McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and other lawmakers requested the audits following constituent complaints and media reports including local ones about long wait times and claim processing delays.
The GAO says in the first report that there's long been a disconnect between the positive wait time numbers the U.S. Veterans Health Administration gives and what veterans say they've actually experienced. The problem is, investigators say, the agency's wait time measures can be ambiguous and unreliable.
"Without reliable measurement of how long patients are waiting for medical appointments, VHA is less equipped to identify and address factors that contribute to wait times, or gauge the success of its initiatives to improve access to timely medical appointments..." the report states.
Veterans Health needs to clarify scheduling policies, more consistently follow those policies and reallocate staff to improve the time it takes to get vets in for care, the GAO says. It says the agency also must improve veterans' telephone access to appointment-making.
"Ultimately, VHA's ability to ensure and accurately monitor access to timely medical appointments is critical to ensuring quality health care to veterans, who may have medical conditions that worsen if access is delayed," auditors say.
In a letter being sent to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, McCarthy and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., ask the agency to act on the GAO recommendations. They say the House Veterans' Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on the audit next month. Miller is chairman of the committee.
Veterans Health has already committed to improving directives, policies, training and oversight, including ones involving scheduling processes by Nov. 1 and telephone services by March 30,, it says in the GAO report.
When it comes to processing benefit claims and appeals from veterans whose service has left them disabled, the Veterans Administration's struggles to be timely are often out of their control, the GAO auditors say in the second report.
They say the number and complexity of requests for aid has increased and will continue to do so as 1 million service members become veterans over the next five years given the reduction in troops being stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The gathering of evidence in deciding on claims took more than five months (157 days) on average in 2011, the report says, and worsened last year in part because it has been difficult to obtain records from the National Guard and Reserve and the Social Security Administration, the GAO quotes officials from the Veterans Benefits Administration as saying.
According to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting that The Californian published last September, the average wait for a veteran who files a claim with the VA Los Angeles Regional Office, which serves Bakersfield, was 363 days. That was an increase of 39 percent over the prior 1.3 years, the center reported.
In its report, the GAO recommends the veterans agency partner up with the federal and state agencies it deals with to speed up record sharing and develop "a robust backlog reduction plan."
Veterans Affairs says in the GAO report that that's already happening.
It goes on to say, for example, that electronic record creation and sharing programs are under way and expected to be completed in November.
The Veterans Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on this audit, too.
On Friday, McCarthy released a statement about the two reports:
McCarthy released a statement about the report Friday.
“Today’s GAO audits only further confirm our veterans’ concerns that the VA is taking too long to resolve their disability claims and schedule their medical appointments," he said. "Now is the time for the VA to act, which is why Chairman Miller and I have urged Secretary Shinseki take immediate action to implement GAO’s recommendations to reduce back logs, increase claims processing times, and ensure our nation’s veterans receive the care they deserve in a timely manner."