WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Veterans Affairs is no better off a year after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsified records to cover up the delays, House Speaker John Boehner charged Wednesday.
In a speech on the House floor, Boehner said the VA has made little progress since Shinseki resigned, despite a new law that overhauled the agency and authorized $16 billion in new spending over three years.
The number of patients facing long waits is about the same, Boehner said, while the number of patients waiting more than 90 days has nearly doubled.
The VA's problems are so deep it can't even build a hospital, Boehner said, referring to a half-finished project in Denver that is $1 billion over budget.
Boehner, R-Ohio, said he is especially frustrated that so few VA officials have been fired, despite evidence that at least 110 VA facilities kept secret lists to hide long wait times.
Instead, many officials have been allowed to retire with full benefits, while others have been transferred, suspended with pay or given a "slap on the wrist," he said. "And all of them go right on collecting checks from taxpayers," Boehner said.
"If only the VA did half as good a job taking care of our veterans as they do their own bureaucrats," he said.
Boehner said a law passed last year by Congress should help and said more legislation to hold the VA accountable is likely. "But only the administration can change the culture from within," he said.
As Memorial Day approaches, President Barack Obama "owes the American people a real, long-term plan to fix the VA," Boehner said. "Not a promise or a pledge or a rearranging of deck chairs: a real plan to clean up this mess."
A VA spokeswoman disputed Boehner's remarks, saying that under the leadership of VA Secretary Robert McDonald and his deputy, Sloan Gibson, "VA has charted a path forward and made significant progress over the past year to enhance our health care system, improve service delivery and set the course for long-term reform."
The agency has expanded access to care and completed 97 percent of appointments within 30 days of the veteran's preferred date, said spokeswoman Victoria Dillon.
The agency made over 2.6 million authorizations for veterans to receive care in the private sector from last May until March 31, a 44 percent increase over the previous year, she said. The VA also has reduced a longstanding claims backlog and cut veteran homelessness by 33 percent, Dillon said.
On the issue of accountability, Dillon cited a May 14 report to Congress that listed 144 "adverse employment actions" proposed or decided since June. Twenty-one employees were fired, six probationary workers were let go and eight employees retired or resigned after being designated for removal, the report said.
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