The fact that veterans hospitals in upstate New York, including the Buffalo VA Medical Center, have been cleared of wrongdoing in the scandal engulfing the Department of Veterans Affairs deserves muted applause.
Only muted, because not all is 100 percent right with these facilities and our veterans deserve no less.
An audit released Monday that found excessive wait times and questionable appointment scheduling at some other VA facilities did not turn up such disturbing practices here. The audit came after reports that patients died while waiting for appointments at a veterans hospital in Phoenix, which was also found to be hiding its scheduling difficulties.
There is something to be said about local administrators that the review of the Buffalo VA Medical Center convinced auditors that there was no need to go further. The same was true of other facilities in upstate New York, although it did call for an additional study of actions at a hospital in the Hudson Valley.
The VA was already taking hits for its lengthy delays in processing disability claims. But this latest scandal involving more than 57,000 veterans who have had to wait more than three months for medical appointments, and an additional 64,000 veterans who enrolled for treatment without ever being seen by a doctor, takes unconscionable to a new low level. Veterans stepped up for this country and should not have to wait for medical care.
It has been shameful enough that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, himself an honored veteran but ill-suited to the job, was forced to step down.
Blame the delays on the department’s goal of seeing patients within 14 days of their first call, a reasonable policy, but then tying job reviews and bonuses to meeting that goal. Rather than speeding care, the policy encouraged VA workers to falsify records.
The VA now says it will no longer tie performance reviews to that 14-day goal. It’s a start, but one that will have to be closely monitored by those in Congress. The bipartisan agreement the Senate reached to reform the agency should go a long way toward improving the system.
The VA Office of Inspector General is conducting a criminal investigation into the falsification of the scheduling records. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are right to call for the Department of Justice, including the FBI, to investigate.
Of the local doctor appointments the VA studied, nearly 45,000 were scheduled within 30 days of the first call. But nearly 1,500 were not. As Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said, “There’s still 1,500 people waiting. That’s 1,500 too many.”
There it is. The Buffalo VA and other upstate veterans hospitals deserve a light pat on the back for not getting mixed up in the worst of this scandal. Still, while wait times are better than most, they must improve.