Is deficient medical care a harmless error? According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it is.
A new report by a federal watchdog group says the VA regularly excuses deficient medical care as examples of "harmless" errors rather than systemic problems.
The Office of Special Council (OSC) submitted a letter to President Obama and Congress on Monday that included nine examples of substandard practices, including improper scheduling, falsifying patient records, and unsanitary work practices. In one case, two patients at a VA mental health facility waited years before receiving appropriate care.
In the letter, U.S. special counsel Carolyn Lerner said that OSC has received more than 50 complaints from whistleblowers about substandard care, and that her office has already referred 29 cases to the VA for further investigation.
But the OSC letter shows concern over the VA's ability and willingness to admit systemic problems exist. "The VA, and particularly the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI), has consistently used a "harmless error" defense," the letter said, "where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected."
"This approach," the letter continued, "has prevented the VA form acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans."
The Department of Veterans Affairs is still dealing with the fallout from news of long delays for veterans seeking medical care at VA systems around the country. A retired VA doctor alleged that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care throught the Phoenix VA system. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was forced to resign over the scandal; a replacement has yet to be nominated, and many high-level health care-related positions at the department remain unfilled.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson responded in a statement: "I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously." He also ordered a comprehensive review of the Office of the Medical Inspector's work and requested it be completed within two weeks.
The report singled out VA facilities in eight states and Puerto Rico. A report by the VA Office of the Inspector General released in May described "systemic" failures in scheduling and care. On June 11, the Senate passed a bill that would essentially double spending on veterans' health care.