WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs has lost the trust of veterans and the American people as a result of widespread treatment delays for people seeking health care and falsified records to cover up those delays, the agency's top official said Wednesday.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the VA has created an environment where workers are afraid to raise concerns or offer suggestions for fear of retaliation and has failed to hold employees accountable for wrongdoing or negligence.
The agency also has devoted too many resources to meeting performance metrics -- such as prompt scheduling of patient appointments -- that were subject to manipulation and may not accurately reflect quality of care, Gibson said.
"As a consequence of all these failures, the trust that is the foundation of all we do -- the trust of the veterans we serve and the trust of the American people and their elected representatives -- has eroded," Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Illustrating the depths of the agency's woes, the VA's Office of Inspector General said Wednesday it is investigating possible wrongdoing at 87 VA medical facilities nationwide, up from 69 last month.
Despite its problems, Gibson said the VA can turn itself around "in as little as two years" if given additional resources by Congress. Gibson did not mention a compromise bill being considered by House and Senate negotiators, but the Obama administration has expressed support for a Senate bill approved last month authorizing $35 billion in new spending to build clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.
Gibson said he supports increased access to outside care for veterans, but said he believes "the greatest risk to veterans over the immediate to long term is that additional resources are provided only to support increased purchased care in the community and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall" for VA operations and facilities.
At a minimum, the VA needs $17.6 billion over the next three years to address shortfalls in clinical staff, office space and information technology, Gibson said.
Gibson took over as acting secretary May 30 after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid a growing uproar over treatment delays and other problems at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including reports that dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital.
The acting secretary told the Senate panel he is committed to restoring the trust of veterans and the American people through a series of actions, some of which have already begun, including outreach to 160,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics.
Gibson also vowed to fix systemic scheduling problems, address cultural issues that have allowed problems at the agency to fester and hold front-line workers and supervisors accountable for willful misconduct or negligence.
He also promised to improve transparency, including regular and ongoing disclosures of information about patient scheduling and care.
Lawmakers generally welcomed Gibson's comments, but said the agency has a long way to go to restore trust.
"What has happened over the course of years is a horrendous blemish on the VA's reputation, and much more work will be needed to repair that damage," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "The culture that has developed at VA and the lack of management and accountability is simply reprehensible."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also lamented "a corrosive culture" at the VA that she said includes management failures and lack of communication at all levels of the agency.
"VA needs more providers, more space and modern IT systems," Murray said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate veterans panel, said he has been impressed by the response of Gibson and other VA leaders to the current crisis, but added: "The simple reality is that the problems they face are staggering."
VA is the largest integrated health care system in the country, with nearly 9 million enrolled veterans seeking care, including many who suffer from a variety of serious mental and physical health problems.
As of June 15, about 46,000 veterans waited at least 90 days for their first VA medical appointments, the agency said. That's down from 57,000 who waited more than 90 days as of May 15.
An additional 7,000 veterans had never gotten an appointment for VA care, despite seeking one over the past decade, the VA said. That's down from about 64,000 veterans who did not get appointments as of May 15.
More than 630,000 veterans have waited at least 30 days for an appointment, the VA said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said he believes scheduling problems at the VA "are the
tip of the iceberg," citing recent allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers and improper payment of millions of dollars in disability claims that are not supported by medical evidence.
"The cancer doesn't seem to stop, but it must be stopped," Johanns said.