NOT known for doing anything quickly or efficiently, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the General Services Administration are living up to their slowpoke reputations. More than two years after Congress authorized the VA to expand its system of outpatient clinics to enable it to provide more timely care for the nation’s veterans, two clinics that were supposed to open in Virginia are still on the drawing board.
And federal officials recently told Sen. Mark Warner that the two clinics may not be completed until 2023 at the earliest.
Virginia is one of four states whose veteran populations exceed 10 percent of the total. The proposed outpatient clinic in the Fredericksburg area will be the largest such VA facility in the country—when it’s finally built.
In a sharply-worded letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie and GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, Warner expressed his “serious concerns and frustrations with the glacial pace” of the projects.
The senator asked them to “expedite the timelines for both clinics to meet the urgent needs of our veterans, as well as present a plan to my office, outlining phases in the timeline that can be reduced.”
Warner added that he was “particularly outraged” that the two planned Virginia clinics—the other is to be built in Hampton Roads—“are among the last to be scheduled for completion.”
The senator pointed out that only two of 28 outpatient clinic leases authorized by Congress in 2017 have opened so far, and that the 2023 timeline for the two Virginia clinics is “more than six years after the approval of these leases. This is unacceptable and reflects poorly on the GSA, the VA and on the U.S. government overall.”
However, the VA’s foot-dragging, while infuriating, should not be a surprise.
In 2014, Americans were shocked to learn that the VA had been falsifying hospital records and extending wait times for veterans trying to schedule surgeries and doctors’ visits so long that a number of them died without being seen.
In an increasingly rare show of bipartisanship, Congress passed a $16 billion VA reform package to fix the problem.
However, a year after it was approved, an analysis by the Associated Press found that the number of veterans waiting for more than 90 days for an initial doctor’s visit at a VA medical facility had actually doubled in the meantime.
This past January, the VA claimed that its average wait time to get a doctor’s appointment in 2017 was 17.7 days (down from 22.5 in 2014), compared with the private-sector average of 29.8 days.
But a USA Today analysis in February of 146 VA medical centers across the country, including facilities in Hampton, Salem and Richmond, found that at “roughly 70 percent of VA hospitals, the median time between arrival in the emergency room and admission was longer than at other [non-VA] hospitals, in some cases by hours.”
The Hampton VA facility was among the worst 10 percent in the nation, with an average wait time of 6.9 hours. Wait times at the Richmond VA (5.4 hours) and Salem VA (5.1 hours) were also both longer than average.
Forcing sick veterans to wait … and wait … and wait some more to see a doctor or be admitted to the hospital is apparently still routine in the VA system.
So more waiting for the new outpatient clinic in Fredericksburg is par for the course.
Hopefully, Sen. Warner will continue to keep pressure on the VA and GSA to make it happen sooner than later.
But the continuing inability of the government-run VA system to provide timely care for former Defense Department employees who honorably served in the armed forces should give pause to all those contemplating a government takeover of the nation’s entire health care system.