VA response satisfies Shuster

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster issued a statement Friday that he will meet with the Van Zandt VA Medical Center’s chief later this month over new audit findings indicating scheduling problems at the facility.

“I will continue to monitor the situation closely and will be meeting with Director Bill Mills later this month to follow up on their progress,” Shuster, R-9th District, said. “I have been in constant communication with the Altoona VA, and I am satisfied thus far with their responses regarding the recent audit results.”

When Van Zandt got a good review earlier this summer from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Shuster held a conference call with the center’s director to discuss the news and talk about future improvements.

Van Zandt is one of about 100 VA centers across the country in which auditors said they found cases of falsified scheduling and related problems, congressional sources said. The data stemmed from a systemwide audit of VA health care facilities launched last spring. The huge audit began after charges of scheduling and wait list mishandling surfaced at VA centers in other parts of the country such as Phoenix, Ariz.

Shuster said the House last week passed the Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which would appropriate $15 billion to increase veterans access to health care. He said the legislation also has provisions that hold VA employees accountable “in performing their jobs to the highest of standards.”

The bill is now awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, he said.

“We all agree that there needs to be immediate reforms to the VA system and to address the problems veterans are experiencing,” Shuster said.

In a similar measure, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., co-sponsored a bill in the Senate to help veterans get their benefits quicker. Called the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, the bill would help reduce the VA claims backlog.

Local veterans including Robert Russler, commander of the James L. Noble VFW Post 3 in Altoona, said while veterans at his post are happy with the local VA center as far as scheduling goes, when it comes to claims, that’s a different story.

Veterans have difficulty getting benefits for disabling issues such as Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said.

“There’s a lot of problems with getting claims processed,” Russler said. “I hear a lot of complaints about that.”

Casey spoke about his bill and its key points in a recent letter to Robert McDonald, the newly confirmed Veterans Affairs secretary.

“Transitioning veterans should not have to wait months and years for their claims to be adjudicated before receiving needed benefits,” Casey wrote.

At the state level, Gov. Tom Corbett has established a website – -for veterans to email complaints to his office if they have any problems with any of the VA health care facilities in the state.

Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Corbett, said so far the site has received five complaints about Van Zandt, but none of them were about scheduling problems.

The Altoona VA center is not the only one in its mid-Atlantic region that was included in the most recent audit sweep.

At a VA Outpatient Clinic in Horsham, which is near Philadelphia, auditors noted that staff said they were “encouraged to inaccurately enter desired date in an attempt to game system.”

At the Pittsburgh hospital, staff also reported use of other “tracking logs” to manage the Electronic Waiting List, similar to the reference made by staffers in Altoona.

At a clinic in Westover, W.Va., which is near Morgantown, workers were instructed to “make the desired date the same as the next available date so there showed no wait within clinic.”

Corbett also established the Governor’s Advisory Council for Veterans Services and created the Veterans Trust Fund to help pay for veterans services.

McEvoy said the governor has also authorized state money to help pay for inspection of VA health care facilities if needed.