March 9, 2007 in Nation/World

VA was warned of backlog for vets

Hope Yen Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – A former Veterans Affairs official said Thursday he warned the department as early as August 2005 of backlogs in the VA benefits claims system, but officials instead shelved a program aimed at alleviating delays.

Paul Sullivan, a former project manager for the VA, told a House panel investigating veterans care that he helped develop a program to consolidate medical records with the Defense Department but that the program suddenly ended once Secretary Jim Nicholson took office in late 2005.

Sullivan also said he sent e-mails warning of a surge in claims from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and that more staffing and funding was needed.

“I made those warning on several occasions,” he said, but never received a response.

Testimony from Sullivan and the Government Accountability Office painted a picture of neglect, bureaucratic delays and poor coordination in the nation’s vast network of 1,400 VA hospitals and clinics.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage.

“That’s unacceptable and embarrassing, and the American people deserve answers,” said Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., who chairs the subcommittee. “I’m not convinced the Veterans Affairs Department is doing its part.”

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., agreed, citing years of warnings. “I can’t even begin to count the number of GAO reports over the years outlining the problems,” he said. “It’s been 20 years in the making trying to get the VA and DOD to cooperate.”

Responding, Michael Kussman, acting under secretary for health at the VA, told the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee that it was wrong to suggest that Nicholson had shelved the program. The decision to abandon Sullivan’s plan was made by program officials who determined it was logistically unsound, Kussman said.

Since then, department officials have been working on a system to improve tracking of medical records, he said.

Thursday’s hearing was the latest to examine the quality of care for wounded veterans in the wake of disclosures of shoddy outpatient health care at Walter Reed, one of the nation’s premier facilities for treating veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA facilities provide supplemental health care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans after they are treated at military hospitals such as Walter Reed.

Since the report last month by the Washington Post, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign and Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was in charge of Walter Reed since August, was ousted.

In a briefing Thursday for reporters at the medical center, top Army officials said they have moved to fix some of the problems at Walter Reed.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said that officials have added caseworkers, financial specialists and others to work with soldiers’ families.

A worldwide telephone hotline also is being established for soldiers having medical or family issues, and Cody said he plans a videoconference today with all of his hospital commanders around the globe to expand the study from Walter Reed to all other Army hospitals.

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