House Panel Says Walter Reed Problems Extend To VA Hospitals

Thursday, March 8th 2007, 9:08 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ 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 early 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.

Under questioning, Kussman also acknowledged that the department was a bit ``surprised'' by the extent of reported cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury but were making adjustments to cope. ``We are ideally poised to take care of'' the growing caseload, he said.

That drew an angry response from Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.

``I find that kind of misplaced optimism, that defense of the system, a cause of where we are today,'' Filner said, noting that VA officials in individual clinics themselves had reported an overstressed system.

``The VA is strained to the limits,'' he said. ``It's our job to give you more resources, but it's your job to say if you need it.''

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 2006, was ousted from his post.

President Bush has also appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate problems at the nation's military and veteran hospitals, and separate reviews are under way by the Pentagon, the Army and an interagency task force led by Nicholson.

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 on problems they have related to the injuries such as getting loans or help with income taxes.

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

Earlier in the week, Nicholson made clear that he would not tolerate substandard conditions. The VA has recently expanded the network of centers designed to provide care to those with traumatic brain injury and will be screening all patients who served in combat for post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

During the hearing Thursday, Cynthia Bascetta, director of health care at GAO, testified that while some improvements have been made by the VA, GAO investigators could not offer assurances that problems of veterans falling through the cracks wouldn't happen again.

Among the problems:

_The Defense Department had difficulty sharing medical records the VA needed to provide rehabilitative care. Because there was no real-time electronic access for most facilities, VA officials typically had to go through a cumbersome process of faxing material back and forth.

_Six of seven VA medical facilities visited by the GAO expressed concerns about the growing demand for PTSD treatment from returning service members. They estimated that delays could be as long as 90 days.