Blumenthal seeks 'reassurance' in VA controversy

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who worked with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., to create a bipartisan agreement that aims to help veterans access health care, said he will continue to push for an independent investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs to learn more about health care delays.

"We are told none of it occurred in Connecticut, but I have also asked for the VA audits to be made public," Blumenthal told The Day on Friday. "They have done the audits on every facility around the country, but they have not yet made them public, so we have no firm reassurance."

The summary of the VA secretary-ordered audit was released May 30 and conducted by the Veterans Health Administration. It found staff members were instructed to manipulate veterans' desired appointment times and that staff members created "secret" wait lists, thus delaying veterans ability to see a doctor. On Thursday, acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson said 18 veterans died while waiting for care from the Phoenix VA Health Care System, which has become the center of the wait-time scandal.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in the wake of the audit, but Blumenthal, along with many other lawmakers, has said Shinseki's resignation isn't enough. "We need as promptly as possible to reassure veterans and re-establish trust and confidence in the VA health care system, and that involves more than just one resignation," he said. "It's really about fixing what's wrong in the system, which is a lack of resources as well as lack of proper management."

Secret wait lists and false documents may not have occurred in Connecticut, the senator said, but there are delays for many veterans seeking treatment. "Literally every day we receive calls, complaints," he said. "Just this morning I was at an event down in Bridgeport and a veteran came up to me and said, 'You know the care is good, everybody seems to agree that the care is good, but it's simply difficult to access because of the delays, the scheduling issues.'"

The bipartisan agreement that Blumenthal co-sponsored was reached Thursday and might come to a Senate vote in the next couple of weeks. It expands a House bill that would give the VA secretary more ability to fire senior executives.

The Senate bill would give the secretary more latitude to fire personnel, authorize $500 million for hiring new doctors and nurses, provide loan forgiveness for those who choose to work for the VA, and give veterans who live 40 miles from a VA facility or have waited too long for care the ability to seek private care outside of the VA hospitals and clinics. Currently, veterans have to show that the services they need aren't available at the VA before going to a private physician or private facility.

"It took a lot of hard bargaining, but in the end we were really all on the same side of this critically important issue because it really is about providing the best possible health care to our veterans," Blumenthal said.

The bipartisan agreement also calls for the development of 26 new VA facilities, including one in West Haven, he said. The Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, which already exists, would add health care to its services, he added.

"But long-term, we need to rebuild a lot of the hospitals," Blumenthal said. "The VA facility in West Haven, it needs major structural work and also possibly a new building there - that's a long-term objective."

The bill in the Senate has to be seen as part of a larger effort to provide veterans across the country with world-class, first-class medical care, Blumenthal said. If it passes in the Senate it will be sent to the House for a vote.


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