Hon. Kevin McCarthy
Chairman Benishek, Ranking Member Brownley and Members of the Subcommittee –
Thank you for allowing me to testify on legislation I introduced, H.R. 2661, the Veterans Access to Timely Medical Appointments Act. This bill is based on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit on the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) scheduling of timely medical appointments, as well as a Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee hearing on the audit’s findings. After disappointing responses from leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I decided to take legislative action to implement the GAO’s recommendations to improve the wait times our veterans face to receive care.
Chairman Miller and I led 28 other members in requesting the GAO to conduct this audit on the VHA regarding its scheduling of medical appointments because I was receiving numerous complaints from veterans in my district who were waiting months for crucial medical appointments at either the local VA clinic in Bakersfield or at the VA Medical Center in Los Angeles. This audit was released over a year ago and to this day, the complaints of poor service from the VA to schedule timely medical appointments is still one of the most frequent by veterans in my district. I would also note that according to the GAO’s website, none of its recommendations have yet to be implemented by the VA.
H.R. 2661 would legislatively implement the GAO’s recommendations and aid the VA in developing a better scheduling policy so veterans can have timely access to needed care. Specifically, it addresses the GAO-identified factors contributing to unreliability of appointment wait times by mandating the VA to improve their medical appointment scheduling policy within 180 days of the bill’s enactment. The bill requires the VA to schedule primary care appointments within seven days and specialty care appointments within fourteen days - goals used internally by VA supervisors and identified within the GAO report. It also addresses the allocation of scheduling resources to meet the demands of veterans, and to ensure timely medical appointments by improving the VA’s telephone access and responsiveness. GAO found that the VA’s positive wait time reports are far greater than veterans actually experience. This is due to a number of reasons, including unreliable data input by VA employees, the VA not requiring stricter adherence to scheduling policy, and a lack of over sight on the scheduling process as a whole.
The VA’s 2015 Budget request does not sufficiently address the wait times new veterans face when scheduling medical appointments and receiving care. It only marginally decrease times and provides no accountability measures. We have tens of thousands of new veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who can’t get appointments in a timely fashion. The VA’s recent Performance Accountability Report says that 41 % of new primary care appointments are scheduled within 14 days of the creation date, and 40% of new specialty care appointments are within 14 days of the creation date. This means that over 60% of these veterans aren’t getting appointments within two weeks. It concerns me that the budget submission only marginally increases scheduling goals to 51% and 45% respectively, and reveals a lack of urgency within the VA to ensure funding reduces wait times. Why should veterans and Congress tolerate such low targets?
There have also been recent news stories on a supposed whistleblower who alleges that the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Medical Center, which serves the healthcare needs of my constituents, “administratively closed” about 40,000 appointments in order to reduce the medical appointment backlog to make its numbers look better. According to Dr. Petzel - who spoke briefly about this issue during a Subcommittee on Health oversight hearing last month - no patients were denied care and there was no attempt to destroy records in this instance. With an ongoing investigation, I was surprised by this testimony. That is why Chairman Benishek and I requested an independent investigation of these allegations, for which we are still waiting on the results. Regardless, it is still not clear to me that the needs of these 40,000 veterans were adequately met by the Department. This highlights the troubled scheduling system within the VA and that it is not meeting the needs of our nation’s veterans.
I am confident that H.R. 2661 will help the VA better meet the needs of the veterans it serves with timely access to medical appointments by creating a cohesive and unified scheduling policy that is both reliable and predictable. After a decade of war, it is our responsibility as Members of Congress to ensure that the department created to serve the men and women returning home and discharged of their military service have access to the care they need. I look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Miller, this committee, the Veterans Service Organizations, and my constituents to see that we solve the problems within the VA and help create a better system to serve our veterans.