By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Monday, February 8 U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R from Montgomery) announced that her bill, H.R. 3234, which she says will streamline improvements at failing VA medical centers will come to the House floor this week. Roby said that this marks a major step forward in her mission to enhance accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs and improve services for veterans.
Congresswoman Roby said that she sponsored the bill after growing frustrated by the VA leadership’s lack of attention to the major problems at the Central Alabama VA, whose medical centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee were identified as being home to the worst delays in patient care nationwide.
Congresswoman Roby said, “We had an acute problem at the Central Alabama VA and it required immediate attention, but, as soon as the scandal left the national headlines, all we heard were excuses up and down the bureaucratic chain of command.”
H.R. 3234, the VA Medical Center Recovery Act, puts the responsibility for identifying and improving the worst performing VA medical centers squarely on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The bill would requiring him to deploy teams of experts to turn around failing facilities. The bill would for the first time require the VA to publish key metrics known as SAIL data on the federal register and would require the Secretary to report to Congress any VA medical centers determined to be failing.
The bill is scheduled for a House vote on Tuesday under suspension of the rules.
Rep. Roby said, “My veterans were subject to some of the worst healthcare service anywhere in the country, and nobody wanted to take responsibility.” “Frankly, I got tired of asking and decided it was time to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to be responsible for taking charge of severely failing medical centers.”
Rep. Roby said that during the VA waitlist scandal, the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) that covers Roby’s district saw some of the worst abuses in the country.
Roby worked with whistleblowers and the press to expose major instances of misconduct and mismanagement, including: Pervasive manipulation of veteran patient scheduling data. More than 57 percent of employees reported that managers instructed them to change appointment times to artificially hide chronically long waits; More than 1000 patient X-Rays, some showing malignancies, went missing for months and years; One pulmonologist was caught twice falsifying more than 1200 patient records, but still received a satisfactory review from administrators; One employee was caught taking a recovering veteran to a crack house, where he bought him drugs and paid for prostitutes in order to extort his benefits. It took a year and a half for him to be fired and then only after Roby’s office exposed it and it was reported publicly by the ‘Alabama Political Reporter’ and other media.
The Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVCHS) Director James Talton was the first VA administrator fired for his poor performance in the country. Representative Roby and U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R) both demanded leadership changes at CAVHCS after it was discovered that patients wait times were being falsified in official reports to Congress and that many veterans in need of care were waiting weeks and months for the care that they were entitled to.
Prior to Talton’s dismissal Sen. Shelby and Rep. Roby jointly wrote a letter to then new Secretary McDonald, “Reports regarding the treatment of veterans in Alabama are dire and appalling. While we have yet to see a comprehensive account of the allegations, it is our understanding that the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) has the eighth longest average wait times in the nation for veterans to receive care, even with its recorded manipulated recordkeeping. Whistleblowers allege that veterans’ x-rays have been lost, which may have in turn led to cancer and other life-threatening conditions going untreated. The leadership of the CAVHCS is alleged to have tolerated or encouraged whistleblower intimidation and retaliation, which possibly continued and exacerbated the abuse. To date, we do not believe that proper action has been taken to mitigate these allegations. Instead of swiftly working to fix the serious problems at the CAVHCS, all reports suggest that its leaders are focused on dodging blame and personal cost rather than serving veterans and providing the care and treatment promised. We have lost trust in the leadership at the CAVHCS.”
Rep. Roby’s office began investigating serious allegations of mismanagement, negligence and cover-up within Central Alabama’s VA system after allegations surfaced. Two senior members of her staff were assigned to meet with whistleblowers and to identify and expose problems within the system.
While more and more problems were exposed at the troubled Central Alabama VA, Roby found that getting the attention of top VA leaders proved difficult. Roby said that she repeatedly asked that the Secretary personally visit Alabama and intervene to help turn the system around. She became frustrated by what she described as officials hiding behind layers of bureaucracy without anyone taking charge or responsibility for fixing acute problems at the Central Alabama VA.
Congresswoman Roby wrote, “Almost two years after the scandal first broke, we are making progress in Central Alabama, but it shouldn’t have taken this long. I don’t want what happened at the Central Alabama VA to ever happen again, anywhere. One way we can do that is by making sure the VA officials at the very top can’t hide behind the layers of bureaucracy.”
Roby filed H.R. 3234 in July 2015 and began working with the House Veterans Affairs Committee to get the bill a hearing and a vote. After working with the Committee to amend the original text, Roby said H.R. 3234 is a big step forward in making top VA officials responsible for the most severely failing systems.
Rep. Roby said, “While I didn’t get everything I wanted in the final version, there’s no question this bill represents a major step forward and something to build upon in terms of making top VA leaders accountable and responsible for severely failing medical centers.”
Congresswoman Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District.