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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Good evening. The Committee will come to order. 

Welcome to today’s Full Committee oversight hearing, “Evaluating the Capacity of the VA to care for Veteran Patients.”

During tonight’s proceedings, we will assess the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) efforts to increase the capacity and efficiency of medical facility operations and, ultimately, improve access to care for veteran patients who have been facing unacceptably long wait times at VA facilities across the country.  Important to those efforts is the status of VA’s Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.

The Initiative was launched in late May in response to the Department’s current wait time crisis and information released last Thursday suggest that it – in coordination with VA’s other efforts -  has led to approximately two-hundred thousand increased appointments from May 15th to June 1st.

I am glad to see that the Department seems to be taking its access failures seriously and is taking steps accordingly to improve the timeliness of care for veteran patients. However, I do have serious concerns about VA’s efforts to-date.  One of my concerns is the lack of detailed information Congress has received about the Initiative, making this yet another in a long and continually increasing list of examples of VA failing to act in an open and transparent manner.

The Committee requested a briefing from the Department on the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative on June 2nd. I followed-up this request with a formal letter to Acting Secretary Gibson on June 5th requesting an immediate briefing on the Initiative.  It has now been nineteen days since that request for an immediate briefing and no further information or acknowledgment of my request has been received. It baffles me as to why the Department failed to provide this Committee with the information we requested on a program of this size and importance. If VA’s work has indeed led to two-hundred thousand more appointments for veteran patients so far, what is there to hide?

More importantly, over the last several weeks, investigations by the VA Inspector General and the Department itself have proven that the VA health care system suffers from a systemic lack of integrity. Data manipulation of patient waiting times was found to be widespread. Given that, how can Congress, the American taxpayer, and our nation’s veterans and their families have any confidence in these latest numbers the Department has released?

Furthermore, if there were actions that VA could have taking to increase access to care for veterans patients, why were those actions not taken long before now?  As part of the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative, VA claims to be taking steps to, in the Department’s own words, -

- “systematically [review] clinical capacity;”

- “[ensure] primary care clinic panels are correctly sized and achieving the desired level of productivity;”

- “[extend or flex] clinic hours on nights and weekends;”

- “[increase] the use of care in the community;” and,

- “[reach] out to veterans to coordinate the acceleration of their care.”

Each of these actions should have been operational components of regular VA business long before now and VA had statutory authority to use these options previously. We know that at least thirty-five veterans in the Phoenix-area alone died while waiting to receive VA care – though I suspect that that number  may rise in the coming weeks and months.

We know that fifty-seven thousand veterans nationwide have been waiting ninety days or more for their first VA appointment. And, we know that sixty-four thousand veterans who enrolled in the VA healthcare system over the last decade never received the appointment they requested.  It is too late for those thirty-five Phoenix area veterans and it may be too late for other veterans who have been waiting for weeks, months, and – in some cases – years.

So I ask again, if there were actions that VA could have taking to increase access to care for veterans patients, why were those actions not taken long before now? With that, I now yield to Ranking Member Michaud for any opening statement he may have.