Colorado Springs VA woes drive Lamborn plan for national fix

November 18, 2017
In The News

Tom Roeder, the Gazette,11/18/17

Things are so bad at the Colorado Springs VA clinic that Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn says it will take drastic action, including privatized veteran health care, to fix it.

Spurred by a new report on scheduling irregularities at the Colorado Springs clinic, Lamborn, a Republican, plans to introduce a bill this month that would give veterans access to private doctors with few restrictions. While it wouldn't eliminate VA health care programs, it would give veterans unfettered access to private care, he said.

"As hard as people try to bring reform, we're always going to have serious problems," Lamborn said Friday. "The bureaucracy is so entrenched and it prevents veterans from getting care like they could get in the private sector."

Missteps at the Lindstrom clinic off Fillmore Street were the focus of a Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general report last week that found that 91 percent of veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress last year had their wait times falsified. Leaders at the clinic used what were described as "secret" waiting lists that hid actual wait times from the agency, the report found.

Troubles at the clinic included 40 veterans seeking PTSD help getting no appointment for care.

According to a Nov. 9 report from VA, patients in Colorado Springs still face the longest wait times in America among the agency's large clinics. Nearly one patient in five waits more than a month for care.

The 17-day average wait for mental health treatment in Colorado Springs is the fourth worst among all VA facilities across the nation.

VA issued a statement countering the report of its own inspector general, saying its clinic in Colorado Springs "at no point in time had unauthorized 'secret wait lists.'"

"This finding is not only incorrect, it is a disservice to the hard-working employees ... many of whom are veterans themselves," the agency said.

The agency, though, said it welcomes inspector general "findings and recommendations as an additional check to ensure veterans are receiving the highest-quality care."

The Colorado Springs clinic has been the focus of criticism for years. Scheduling shenanigans were the focus of another inspector general's report from 2015 that found 28 veterans there had same-day appointments recorded in their records when they had actually waited an average of 76 days.

Problems at the clinic have drawn ire from both political parties in Congress. Democratic Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet expressed frustration over the latest revelations.

"This report makes clear that the VA in Colorado still has a long way to go toward delivering proper care," he said in an email.

Lamborn said the anger growing on both sides of the aisle gives him confidence that a major overhaul of VA could gain congressional traction.

The congressman's plan mirrors a proposal floated last year by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican who heads the GOP conference in the House.

It would offer veterans insurance similar to that offered to federal employees. Fully disabled veterans would get free care, others would get subsidized premiums.

"It sets up the private sector as a competitor for the VA," Lamborn said.

It's a move that's unlikely to get wide support among veterans advocacy groups. The Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a survey earlier this year that found overwhelming support among members for maintaining the existing VA system.

"The most important takeaway is the overwhelming majority of respondents said they want to fix, not dismantle the VA health care system," VFW national commander Brian Duffy said in a statement.

Lamborn said he knows he'll face a fight with organizations that support existing VA medical services.

"There are some veterans groups or leaders who are wedded to the current system and cannot see to the next level," he said.

Pressure from veterans groups and VA's more than 300,000 workers have kept broad-based private care options at bay since 2014, when Congress rolled out the Choice program. Designed to eliminate wait times for VA care, the program was mired in red tape, including provisions that veterans could not seek private care unless they had waited more than a month or lived more than 40 miles from VA services.

Lamborn's measure would eliminate those restrictions and goes beyond the Choice act in providing flexibility.

VA health care wouldn't end with Lamborn's measure, but it would see massive change.

The current Veterans Health Administration's health care duties would give way to a federally backed nonprofit entity called Veterans Accountable Care Organization. Under Lamborn's plan, that entity would continue to provide specialized care, but could act more like private hospitals when it comes to hiring and firing employees.

Lamborn said the move would end a culture that has been averse to change.

"The bureaucracy as it is presently constructed will fight tooth and nail to avoid competition," he said.

The bill would also create a separate Veterans Health Insurance Program to manage the private care part of the plan.

Veterans would also gain access to federal long-term care insurance under the bill, giving them coverage for private nursing homes.

It's a radical solution, but Lamborn says the problems in Colorado Springs prove a revolution is required.

Lamborn is angry over a revelation in the inspector general's report that a veteran in 2016 committed suicide while suffering through scheduling delays for mental health care at the Colorado Springs clinic.

The veteran had been identified as a "low acute and chronic suicide risk" the report said. He died 13 days after a consultation at the clinic.

"It is a real gut shot - for someone to reach that point of despair is unacceptable," Lamborn said. "It shows that we need massive, major reform."

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