U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal wants to know how Connecticut’s Veteran Affairs medical facilities fared in the internal agency audit that led to the resignation of U.S. Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
The VA released the aggregate results of the audit on Friday, which detailed the agency’s inability to meet deadlines in providing healthcare services to veterans. According to the audit, some at the agency falsified records to cover for delays. Shinseki resigned from his post Friday following the audit’s release.
Blumenthal wrote Monday to acting VA Secretary Sloane Gibson seeking the release of the individual audits conducted at 216 different VA facilities around the country. He said “serious questions have been raised” about the agency’s facilities in the state, which includes two hospitals and six other medical facilities.
“My hope is that Connecticut’s facilities were among them. If not, they will be, but we deserve to know what the results were across the country, including right here in Connecticut,” Blumenthal said at a Monday press conference outside the State Armory in Hartford.
Although it is unclear whether the agency audited the veterans hospitals in West Haven and Newington, Blumenthal said he has spoken to veterans who have reported delays.
“Veterans are telling me they’ve encountered delays here in Connecticut. They’ve encountered delays every bit as serious as anywhere in the country. The care is good once they receive it, but access is the problem,” he said. “Delays are endemic and I hear about them as recently as this morning.”
The individual audits will be released at some point in the next few months, but Blumenthal said he has gotten no firm commitment from the VA regarding when that will occur. He said he will meet with Gibson later this week and will urge him to release them immediately.
Blumenthal said he also plans to introduce legislation this week with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders to address some of the systematic problems in the VA health care system.
The bill would enable vets to seek care from private medical providers if their care at the VA has been delayed. He said the option is necessary because the agency lacks enough doctors and healthcare providers to handle the demand from veterans seeking care.
“The VA does some things very well,” he said, pointing to treatments for brain injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “But primary health care? Just not enough doctors to provide it so VA clients and patients have to be given options.”
On the hiring side, the bill would provide emergency funding for the agency to hire more doctors and nurses and set up scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for healthcare professionals who choose to work at the VA.
“Making use of doctors who have large debt — enabling them to work down that debt by service in our VA, makes absolutely perfect sense,” he said.
The legislation would make it easier for the agency to fire bad actors within its ranks. Blumenthal called the agency’s bureaucracy “rigid” and “calcified.”
“The reason why the VA bureaucracy lied to Eric Shinseki and the American people in part is for bonus incentives and performance reviews. When they failed to meet those metrics, they are often beyond the firing capacity,” he said. “. . . Very simply, this bill would give the VA secretary expanded authority to fire people who don’t meet goals and standards.”
Blumenthal said whoever inherits the VA secretary post will be facing a large task, which he said should begin with the release of the specific audits.
He or she “has to be there like a junkyard dog hitting the ground, insisting on results, and making sure that the truth is told and the truth begins with these site-location results,” he said.