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Witness Testimony of Mr. Roscoe Butler, National Field Service Representative Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission The American Legion

A veteran in crisis, suffering from mental health problems, became so furious with the telephone delays he faced while trying to make a mental health appointment at the VA, assaulted his wife and dog after being repeatedly placed on hold.  Veterans are struggling to access their healthcare across the country, and in Richmond, Virginia appointments for mental health (PTSD) issues are at least a six to eight month wait. Further, when calling for assistance, veterans are placed on hold before being asked whether the call is regarding an emergency, or whether the veteran is currently a danger to them self or to someone else.

Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud and distinguished Members of the Committee: On behalf of National Commander James Koutz and the 2.4 million veterans of The American Legion, thank you for the opportunity to address this critical issue affecting veterans across the nation.
 
In VISN 21, a veteran has informed us that it takes approximately twelve weeks to obtain primary care appointments at the VAMC.  Addressing wait times within VA is nothing new to The American Legion.  Our System Worth Saving Task Force, the renowned third party oversight of VA medical facilities, was created, in part, as a response to growing wait times at VA facilities.  When Past National Commander Ronald F. Conley of Pennsylvania became National Commander in 2002, he helped create two initiatives: First was the year-long “I Am Not A Number” campaign which sought to put faces on the veterans waiting months and years for appointments and service from VA, and second was the annual System Worth Saving report – designed to address the fact that, as Commander Conley noted,

“Among veterans, I heard profound gratitude voiced for the quality of care they receive.  But from nearly everyone, I also found acute frustration over the lack of timely access to VA health care.”  

That year the System Worth Saving Report found that over 300,000 veterans were waiting for health care appointments.  Of those, over half were waiting more than eight months for primary care appointments.  At Bay Pines, Florida the VA Medical Center had a list of 14,000 veterans waiting longer than six months for an appointment, and 14,000 was a celebrated improvement!

It’s been more than 10 years, and The American Legion continues to make System Worth Saving Task Force visits to dozens of medical facilities across the country every year.  We have determined that many of these scheduling problems remain, and veterans are still being delayed and denied access to otherwise excellent care.  VA needs to begin implementing real solutions to its problems and these solutions need to start with an improved appointment scheduling system.

Unfortunately, the only metric we have to track whether veterans are being seen on time relies on self-reporting from VA, and according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), VA is a poor barometer of whether or not they are meeting appointment time guidelines.  GAO specifically noted problems with VA schedulers repeated erroneous recording the “desired date” for appointments, and explained “…schedulers changed the desired date based on appointment availability; this would have resulted in a reported wait time that was shorter than the patient actually experienced.”   Because the figures are being manipulated by employees to look better, statistics such as VA’s reported 94 percent of primary care appointments within the proper period, mean very little.  

The real measure, of whether VA is meeting the needs of veterans is how long the ACTUAL veterans have been waiting for appointments.  For example, a veteran in VISN 18 told the Legion that they were waiting more than 8 months for a primary care appointment, and when he finally went in for the appointment, he was not seen, but rescheduled to return a month later.  A three quarter of a year wait for a primary care appointment is not meeting the needs of veterans.

As we are now a decade into the 21st Century, The American Legion believes that VA should also begin implementing 21st Century solutions to its problems.  In 1998, GAO released a report that highlighted the excessive wait times experienced by veterans trying to schedule appointments, and recommended that VA replace its VistA scheduling system.  To address the scheduling problem, the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) solicited internal proposals from within VA to study and replace the VistA Scheduling System, with a Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) software program. VA selected a system, and about 14 months into the project they significantly changed the scope of the project from a COTS solution to an in-house build of a scheduling application.  After that, VHA ended up determining that it would not be able to implement any of the planned system’s capabilities, and after spending an estimated $127 million over 9 years, The American Legion learned that VHA ended the entire Scheduling Replacement Project in September 2009.   We believe that this haphazard approach of fits and starts is crippling any hope of progress.
It has now been over three years since VHA cancelled the Replacement Scheduling Application project, and as of today, The American Legion understands that there is still no workable solution to fixing VA’s outdated and inefficient scheduling system.  In 2012 The American Legion passed Resolution number 42 that asked the VA to implement a system “To allow VA patients to be able to make appointments online by choosing the day, time and provider and that VA sends a confirmation within 24 hours”.  Last December, VA published an opportunity for companies to provide adjustments to the VistA system through the federal Register – all submissions are due by June 2013.  While this is laudable attempt to address the problem, it hardly seems sufficiently proactive given that the problem has been identified for over fifteen years, and the persistence of excessive wait times still experienced by many veterans across the nation.

The American Legion recognizes that over the past decade, VA has taken some steps aimed at to improving its scheduling and access to care, we believe that there is still much to be done.  In order to adequately address the problems of veterans, The American Legion believes VA should adopt the following steps towards a solution:

1.    Devote full effort towards filling all empty staff positions.  The problems with mental health scheduling clearly indicate how a lack of available medical personnel can be a large contributing factor to long wait times for treatment.  Despite VA’s efforts to hire 1,600 new staff, as recently as last month VA was noting only two thirds of those positions had been filled.  This does not even address the previous 1,500 vacancies, and stakeholder veterans’ groups are left to wonder if VA is adequately staffed to meet the needs of veterans.  

We believe they are not.  

If VA needs more resources to address these staffing needs, The American Legion hopes they will be forthright and open about their need, and ask for the resources they need to get the job done.  The Veteran Service Organizations and Congress have been extremely responsive to get VA the resources they need to fulfill their mission, but VA must be transparent about what their real needs are.

2.    Develop a better plan to address appointments outside traditional business hours.  With the growing numbers of women veterans who need to balance family obligations and other commitments hamper our veterans’ abilities to meet appointments during regular business hours. The American Legion believes VA can better address the community’s needs with more evening and weekend appointment times.  American Resolution number 40 calls on the VA to provide more extended hour options, and believes VA should recruit and hire adequate staff to handle the additional weekend and extended hour appointments for both primary and specialty care.

3.    Improve the IT solution.  Last year The American Legion also passed resolution number 44 , that called on the VA to create a records system that both VBA and VHA could share to better facilitate information exchange.  A common system could even synchronize care visits in conjunction with compensation and pension examinations.  We had hoped such a system might be included in the improvements brought by the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, however VA and DOD appear to be content to pursue individual legacy systems for that project, so veterans must continue to contend with VBA and VHA systems that do not communicate as well as they should.  In any case, as VA looks outward for a solution to their scheduling program, all can agree that the current system is not serving the needs of veterans and needs to be updated.

Tragically, the end result is that although VA has a truly first rate standard of care, veterans aren’t able to access it with anywhere near the ease with which they should.  Even the best care in the world is of little service to veterans if they cannot easily schedule timely appointments.  If these problems with scheduling and appointments can be remedied, and veterans can access the care VA is delivering through the system, there would be little to complain about.

The American Legion thanks the committee for their diligence to pursue these failings of oversight, and while these are solvable problems, the solutions will require the participation and input from all community stakeholders.  The outstanding care veterans receive in VA is, and should be, a point of national pride. Let’s not tarnish the good work the VA accomplishes because we insist on wrestling with legacy IT systems.

For additional information regarding this testimony, please contact Mr. Shaun Rieley at The American Legion’s Legislative Division, (202) 861-2700 or srieley@legion.org.

BIOGRAPHY FOR
ROSCOE BUTLER
FIELD SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE
NATIONAL VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION

Roscoe served three years in the United States Army from 1974 to 1977.  After he was honorably discharged from the United States Army, Roscoe was employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs for 37 years, which the last position he held was Deputy Director for Business Policy, VHA Chief Business Office. He retired from VA in December 2011.  He currently resides in Colombia, MD with his wife Rose and two sons.  

List of attachments;

Attachment A    Statements from veterans as reported to us through our Department Service Officers
Attachment B    The American Legion Resolution #40
Attachment C    The American Legion Resolution #42
Attachment D    The American Legion Resolution #44

Attachment A:
Statements from veterans as reported to us through our Department Service Officers
 VISN 1
Generally the access to healthcare in the VISN is excellent when everything goes right, weather and vacations hamper the process though and there are a few issues.  Scheduling continues to be tricky for certain specialties and the clinics are cancelling appointments if the veteran is not checked in prior to the assigned time. In the winter months that is tricky .   Vets ( including myself) were listed as missing an appointment on the day of the big snow storm earlier in the month. My rheumatology clinic was rescheduled four months from now.  VHA has expanded the capacity at one of the CBOC’s as it has moved to a larger facility and they have in turn brought on additional providers. This eases the strain at the VAMC’s, although I cannot say without checking the numbers if they are seeing more veterans then last year at this time, or if the load has been spread out across more providers.  Mental Health Care at the CBOC’s is getting good reviews , both on access and availability to Psychologists and Psychiatrists. In VHA the problem appears to be, as was mentioned at the Washington Conference in DC, that only about half of the enrolled vets are using the services. I cannot say what the functionality would be if 80-90% of enrollees began to actively seek health care, or if  a higher percentage  of eligible veterans enrolled.
VISN 6
Appointments for Mental Health, i.e Ptsd. Veterans are having to wait at least 6-8 months to be seen. When calling this clinic for assistance, you are immediately placed on hold, before being asked "Is this an Emergency" Are you in any danger to yourself, or someone else. One Veteran,  after he was placed on hold, became so furious, he beat his dog and wife, then they both went to the emergency room outside the VA.
 Another concern is Veterans being sent for QTC exams, and because the doctors are not clear as to the test VA wants, they are given options to decline the tests.
 Female Veterans are not seeing, nor getting the treatment, or time spent as males are. Story- Two married veterans with Diabetes. Her husband (takes pills only), VA doctor took 20 minutes with him, observed his feet,  spoke to him about nutrition, shoes, socks medication and so on. Her doctor, crossed his legs, asked what can he do for her, took 10 minutes, made one or two notes, and said I refilled your medicines and I will see you in six months. This veteran is Insulin dependent, takes Medformin (pill), had recently stepped on a thumb tack, and her feet and ankles were swollen. She asked him to check her feet, doctor asked why, what's going on and reminded her that other patients are time slotted, she may have to reschedule. Last - VHA -Interns are telling the veteran, they are not experienced enough to write nexus letter to support claim, diagnoses or justify conditions. They are telling the veteran, it's in their records, tell who ever is processing your claim to read it.
VISN 8, 10, 18
I’ve been enrolled in three different VISN’s and health care facilities in the last twenty some odd years.  The first was at the VA OPC, in VISN 8.  The care there was second to none and I could get appointments within two to three weeks.  My second experience was with A medical center in VISN 10.  Although overcrowded, I received excellent care and appointments within two to three weeks.  I am now residing in VISN 18.  It took me eight months to get my initial appointment, when I arrived, they had given me the wrong time and cancelled the appointment.  It took another four or five weeks to reschedule their error.  My appointment was in early January.  They were supposed to set up upper-GI and audiology appointments.  Also, I asked for more pain medications (non-narcotic) for my service connected back.  I am still waiting for the appointments and the meds.  I do not intend to go back to this medical center.  It appears to be poorly managed.  I should not have had to wait 8 months for my first appointment, and they should have made arrangements to see me that day when I reported late for the appointment, as it was their error which caused me to be late.  I lost one hour of sick leave because of their error.
VISN 10
Treatment – The mental health department seems to have a cookie cutter method for treating all veterans.   As a result veterans have stopped seeking Mental Health treatment. This makes veterans not want to seek help.
VHA Phone – When you do get through on the phones, you are transferred to the wrong department or told you will be called back, and never get a call back.  
VISN 17
We do not receive too many complaints and about my facility in VISN 17, but a few more complaints about another VAMC in VISN 17 with regard to scheduling appointments. Some of the veterans indicate that it is a bit difficult to schedule an appointment, especially with the outpatient clinics. Most of the complaints seem to center around being timely notified of the date and time of the appointments. Additionally, there have been complaints about the length of time it would take to get into a specialty clinic, especially PTSD at the clinics. Of course, the majority of the complaints about the VA healthcare facilities come from those individuals using the medical center.
VISN 18
Here in VISN 18 we have a great VA hospital.  However, medical personnel is an issue. We have a great women's clinic but because of staff shortages it takes sometime for our women veterans to have an appointment.  In addition, the east side CBOC is also experiencing staff issues.  One primary care physician at a medical center in VISN 18 has not been replaced and since his departure last summer, his patients have a difficulty being seen.
VISN 19 & 22
Another major issue is having to wait up to 12 weeks to get a primary care appointment. Fortunately, the individual can go to triage for emergent issues but we don’t want triage to become primary care. Another issue would be obtaining a diagnosis of PTSD or mental health issue. It can take weeks for a WWII or a Viet Nam vet to get a diagnosis as the only priority care for PTSD issues is the OEF/OIF office. Now these WWII and Viet Nam and Korea vet who begin to experience issues at this later time in life after retirements etc, have to first get to primary care (12 weeks) and then obtain a referral to mental health which can take weeks to months due to loading.
While I hear great things about the staff and care in VISN 19 AND 22, the wait times and availability for appointments and issues are approximately 8-12 weeks out.  
We are not considered ‘rural’ but ‘frontier’, which means we are even more remote than rural.  We have an approximate population of 50K and are 4 hours drive from the nearest VAMC.  The local CBOC does not have a full time nor even part time doctor on site which means 4 hour trips one way.  Emergency and urgent care and coordination there of for veterans seems to be an issue with the local hospital also.
VISN 23
One of the biggest complaints I hear time and time again is when a veteran wants to call in (or the doc has asked them to contact them) and they call up the Clinic to leave message or etc and they cannot be connected to the doctor. Either they get a triage nurse or someone in another clinic and they are not sure the provider even got the message to start with. This is a huge problem. Many times the vets get seen in the ER or the doc says call me and let me know and they can’t get that message back to them. This makes the vets feel like they have no connection to the doctor they just saw.
My other issue is this: I am soooooo tired of getting a provider and 2 months later having to start from scratch with yet another provider. I hate hashing and rehashing my medical concerns time and time again or something that was so far in the past that it’s no longer an issue but since we are starting from scratch we have to go back to it.  That means the quick appointment I thought I was going to get to refill my meds now takes 2 hours and there is absolutely no reason for it.
We hear a lot about the inability to provide certain medications for veterans as they are not authorized on the list. For example certain medications for Diabetes control.

Attachment B
NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
OF
THE AMERICAN LEGION
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
OCTOBER 17 – 18, 2012

Resolution No. 40: Extended Hours & Weekends for Veterans’ Health Care
Origin: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Submitted by: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission

WHEREAS, The Department of Veteran Affairs’ (VA) mission is to provide for those who have borne the battle; and
WHEREAS, Veterans employed in the civilian workforce may require more flexible hours to meet their health care needs, because they have not accrued an adequate amount of personal leave to use for health care appointments; and
WHEREAS, Eligible veterans should not be denied access to VA healthcare due to a lack of flexible health care appointments; and
WHEREAS, Veterans with children also may require flexible hours to meet their health care needs; and
WHEREAS, Extended hours such as early mornings, evenings and weekend appointments should be made available at all VA facilities to include primary and specialty care; and
WHEREAS, Offering extended hours for veterans may reduce no-show rates by providing flexible appointments; and
WHEREAS, Additional clinic hours are not possible due to chronic short staffing; and
WHEREAS, Staffing limitations would affect patients from receiving health care on a timely basis; and
WHEREAS, The VA’s premium and overtime compensation should be competitive with the private sector for employees who contribute overtime and weekend work; and
WHEREAS, The Veterans Health Administration developed Directive 2012-023, Extended Hours Access For Veterans Requiring Primary Care Including Women’s Health and Mental Health Services At Department Of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers And Selected Community Based Outpatient Clinics on September 5, 2012; and
WHEREAS, The directive was rescinded on September 11, 2012 by VHA Notice 2012-13; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, By the National Executive Committee of The American Legion in regular meeting assembled in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 17-18, 2012, The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) provide extended hours and weekend appointments for both primary and specialty care at all VA medical facilities in addition to their regular hours of operation; and, be it finally
RESOLVED, That the VA recruits and hires additional staff to accommodate the rising need of weekend and extended hours for appointments in both primary and specialty care.

Attachment C
NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
OF
THE AMERICAN LEGION
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
OCTOBER 17 – 18, 2012

Resolution No. 42: Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record
Origin: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Submitted by: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission

WHEREAS, On April 9, 2009, President Obama provided direction to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER), which would create a unified lifetime electronic record for members of the Armed Services; and
WHEREAS, The VLER plans to include administrative and medical information for service members from when they first join the service throughout their lives until they are laid to rest; and
WHEREAS, The VLER plan seeks to expand the departments’ health information sharing capabilities by enabling access to private sector health data as well; and
WHEREAS, VLER is a federal, inter-agency initiative to provide portability, accessibility and complete health, benefits and administrative data for servicemembers, veterans and their beneficiaries; and
WHEREAS, DoD and VA for years have yet to fully implement a bilateral medical record between both agencies with no target end date in sight; and
WHEREAS, Approximately 2.1 million members of the military have served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn and are returning home in unprecedented numbers needing care for their injuries and illnesses sustained in service to our nation; and
WHEREAS, Failure to implement a bilateral medical record and VLER to date has caused significant delays in the veterans’ treatment process from DoD to VA because the VA treatment team does not have full access to the patient’s DoD records and have to rely on a patient’s self report of their medical history and symptoms; and
WHEREAS, Servicemembers and veterans are forced to make copies of their records at their last duty station or submit a request to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which can take months to process; and
WHEREAS, Veteran service organizations, such as The American Legion, have not been invited to VLER meeting to provide stakeholder input and sharing of mutual concerns; and
WHEREAS, The American Legion has over 2,000 accredited department (state) and county veteran service officers that will continue to need access to Veteran Benefit Administration databases in order to file for VA benefits and claims for those claimants represented; and
WHEREAS, The American Legion is concerned that within VA’s three branches – Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration – there are numerous computer-based programs that are inoperable between these branches which are not addressed in the VLER plan; and
WHEREAS, Because a bilateral medical record is not currently available, there is not an ability for a patient’s record to be flagged at the time of injury/illness occurred during military service, which makes it difficult and more time-consuming for DoD/VA physicians and raters to find proof of service connection; and
WHEREAS, Currently VA has the ability to send patients encrypted email messages and a VHA program, Myhealthyvet, allows patients to refill their VA prescriptions, view their labs and receive VA wellness reminders but does not allow VA patients to schedule appointments online; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, By the National Executive Committee of The American Legion in regular meeting assembled in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 17-18, 2012, That The American Legion urge Congress to provide oversight to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure that the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) is fully implemented by Fiscal Year 2013; and, be it further
RESOLVED, That The American Legion urge DoD and VA to implement VLER no later than FY 2013 to ensure returning servicemembers' medical records are able to be accessed by both agencies which will improve the timeliness and delivery of VA health care and claims benefits; and, be it finally
RESOLVED, That The American Legion recommend the following be included in design and implementation of VLER:
• Include veteran service organizations, such as The American Legion, in VLER meetings to offer stakeholder input and sharing of mutual concerns;
• Allow servicemember records to be flagged at the time of injury/illness in the military to speed up processing of VA benefits (health care and claims) during and after discharge;
• Ensure computer systems and programs within the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration are interoperable and able to communicate with each other;
• Allow VA patients to be able to make appointments online by choosing the day, time and provider and that VA sends a confirmation within 24 hours.

Attachment D

NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
OF
THE AMERICAN LEGION
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
OCTOBER 17 – 18, 2012

Resolution No. 44: Decentralization of Department of Veterans Affairs Programs
Origin: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Submitted by: Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission

WHEREAS, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been gearing towards a centralized model of decision-making within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA); and
WHEREAS, Centralization of contracting has created problems for individual facilities such as a two-day pileup of hazardous waste outside a Boston VA Medical Center (VAMC) due to a lapse in contract that could have been prevented by local contracting officers; and
WHEREAS, Centralization of Internet Technology (IT) removed the ability of individual facilities to be flexible with their programming needs; and
WHEREAS, Centralization of information leads to siloing among the Administrations; for example when processing a claim, the VBA and the VHA do not have the ability to access or view the other administration’s records in their entirety; nor can the Appeals Management Center (AMC) view images in records that might be useful in rating decisions; and
WHEREAS, According to an article published in the Annual Review of Public Health in 2009 called “Extreme Makeover: Transformation of the Veterans Health Care System” by Drs. Kizer and Dudley, centralization of decision-making authority markedly slows down the process; and
WHEREAS, Centralization fosters animosity between agencies that are forced to compete for IT funding; for example the Office of Research and Development (ORD) reported that it was unable to finance select projects because all resources went to the VBA claims IT program programs; and
WHEREAS, The VistA computer program that the VHA uses to track medical records was created by doctors at local facilities, and is now regarded as one of the best IT systems in the world; and
WHEREAS, If the VBA and VHA shared a common appointment scheduling system for Compensation and Pension (C&P) exams, their respective employees would be able to schedule and reschedule appointments as needed; and
WHEREAS, If VBA liaisons were placed within VAMCs, communication between administrations, namely the communication between raters and physicians, would be increased, therefore reducing error and turnaround time for processing claims; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, By the National Executive Committee of The American Legion in regular meeting assembled in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 17-18, 2012, That The American Legion supports decentralization of programs associated with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA); and, be it further
RESOLVED, That the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) decentralizes its decision making, accompanied by a demarcation of responsibilities and a plan for holding its decision-makers accountable; and, be it further
RESOLVED, That the VA restores contract-making authority and Internet Technology programs to VA Medical Centers at the local level and Regional Offices (ROs); and, be it further
RESOLVED, That VBA and VHA structure their relationship using a bottom-up approach similar to Baldrige’s Model of Excellence, which will allow for a rapid model of change to occur at the operator level; and, be it finally
RESOLVED, That VBA and VHA share a common records system and increased access to one another’s programs in order to facilitate information exchange and process claims more efficiently.