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Opening Statement of Chairman Mike Coffman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

Good morning. This hearing will come to order.

I want to welcome everyone to today’s hearing titled “Waiting for Care: Examining Patient Wait Times at VA.”

We should always be working to ensure veterans have timely access to quality care.  However, today’s hearing is necessary because evidence reviewed by this Subcommittee, the Government Accountability Office, and VA’s own Inspector General shows little improvement in that area.  

GAO recently completed its study that was appropriately titled “Appointment Scheduling Oversight and Wait Time Measures Need Improvement.”  Despite claims of improvement under higher standards, we will hear today about a lack of reliable information when VA is measuring patient wait times.   VA’s own testimony supports that premise as it discusses what it sees as no reliable standard and an inability to accurately measure what constitutes a patient wait time.  

While the topic of patient wait times may sound like a very narrow issue, the problems in accurately monitoring and improving wait times for veterans at VA facilities is spread throughout the whole Department of Veterans Affairs.  Schedulers at the facilities themselves have to use a cumbersome system that creates a significant chance of error.  The problem runs all the way up to the Veterans Health Administration, which has an unclear policy on patient scheduling practices, and still seems to struggle to best define its policy on patient scheduling. I understand that defining these policies is not easy, and that perfecting a process for appointment scheduling is a significant challenge, but VA has been well behind in this area for a long time.  

However, none of this excuses VA from its obligation to veterans.  While I understand a system may not always be perfect, it does not mean that VA shouldn’t make every effort to ensure veterans receive necessary care.  Backlogs are a fairly common theme at the Department, but that is no reason for VA to game the numbers to simply show better performance instead of providing medical appointments, sometimes for life-threatening conditions.  

Sadly, evidence obtained by this Subcommittee clearly shows that, in many cases, VA did not do the right thing.  Instead, evidence has shown that many VA facilities, when faced with a backlog of thousands of outstanding or unresolved consultations, decided to administratively close out these requests.  Some reasons given included that the request was years old, too much time had elapsed, or the veteran had died.  

This Subcommittee asked VA for updates on these consultation backlogs beginning in October 2012.  Despite multiple follow-up requests to VA, no information was ever provided, and it was only when this hearing was scheduled that the Department offered a briefing on this subject.  I would note that the Subcommittee asked for information, not a briefing.  Regardless, we should not be where we are now, and this goes to reinforce that the Veterans’ Affairs Committee wants to work with the Department on this and other issues, but that requires a willingness on VA’s side to be forthcoming about its problems so that together we can identify ways to solve them.