WASHINGTON – Substandard care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center appears to extend to the nation's vast network of veterans hospitals, the head of a House panel investigating the situation said Thursday.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., cited recent audits and reports that pointed to confusing paperwork and poor health care coordination as well as backlogs in the treatment of returning servicemembers who were deemed at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"That's unacceptable and embarrassing, and the American people deserve answers," Mitchell said in remarks prepared for a hearing late Thursday. "I'm not convinced the Veterans Affairs Department is doing its part."
Following revelations of poor conditions and neglect in Walter Reed's outpatient care, the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee was investigating problems at more than 1,400 VA hospitals and clinics.
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.
In his statement, Mitchell questioned whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson was doing enough for veterans, citing complaints by a former VA project manager, Paul Sullivan.
Sullivan was expected to testify late Thursday that Nicholson had shelved a proposal to alleviate long delays for health care and benefit payments because he was too concerned about the $1 million price tag.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is doing its job to make that transition as easy as possible," Mitchell said.
Thursday's hearing is the latest to examine the quality of care by 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.
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.
Earlier in the week, Nicholson defended his agency's efforts to serve veterans but 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.
"If even one of these young men or women does not receive needed care, that is one too many, and we will do all within our power to ensure such a situation is rectified," Nicholson wrote Wednesday in a letter to the House committee.
During the hearing Thursday, Cynthia Bascetta, director of health care at GAO, testified that investigators over the years had pinpointed several problems involving coordination between the Defense Department and the VA in providing health care.
While some improvements have been made, GAO investigators could not offer assurances that problems of veterans falling through the cracks wouldn't happen again, according to Bascetta's prepared testimony.
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 servicemembers. They estimated that delays could be as long as 90 days.