Report points to ongoing concerns with veterans’ access to timely VA health care

WASHINGTON D.C. — A new watchdog report is pointing to concerns about veterans still not always having timely access to health care services through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

The VHA is the largest integrated health care system in the country, serving more than 9 million veterans.

According to the report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the VA still needs to address several outstanding priority recommendations from the GAO, including concerns about long wait times.

“To ensure reliable measurement of veterans’ wait times for medical appointments, we recommend that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs direct the Under Secretary for Health to take actions to improve the reliability of wait time measures either by clarifying the scheduling policy to better define the desired date, or by identifying clearer wait time measures that are not subject to interpretation and prone to scheduler error,” the report said.

“We certainly hear far too often that it is a frustrating, slow, challenging situation,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

Butler said a big part of the problem comes down to a lack of staffing from the local level, all the way up to leadership.

He said the most urgent vacancies to fill are the undersecretary for health and the undersecretary for benefits, which are both listed as vacant by the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The Senate needs to confirm the nominees to fill those spots, which have remained vacant for more than four years.

“This is something where Congress really has the ability to make major headway in improving the situation,” said Butler. “They just have not given it the focus that it deserves in a long time.”

The report also points to a need for the VA to improve its tracking of veteran suicides.

“In September 2020 we found that VHA does not have accurate information on how many veterans have died by suicide, and its efforts to prevent future on-campus suicides is limited by its decision not to comprehensively analyze the issue,” the report said. “Implementing two priority recommendations would improve the accuracy of VHA’s numbers of on-campus suicides, and would help VA understand the prevalence and nature of such suicides and to address them.”

Butler said that since the VA relies on states to report the information, and states often rely on veterans’ families, it’s not always an easy process.

“It’s always going to be a little less than perfect, but we do need that information and it should be prioritized,” said Butler.

According to the report, the VA agrees with the recommendation to improve timely access to care and is working on making changes.

“VA agreed with our recommendation,” the report said. “According to VA officials, the department is in the process of implementing a new scheduling system (integral to its new electronic health record system) that officials believe is a key part of addressing our recommendation, with a targeted national completion date of 2027 for implementation across all VA health care facilities.”

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