ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce said Friday that the debate over access to health care for veterans must be more transparent and involve the public if the federal government has any hopes of changing the culture within the Veterans Affairs health care system.
The New Mexico Republican, state officials and a group of veterans had an hour-long meeting with administrators for the VA system in New Mexico, where more than 1,000 patients had to wait three months or longer for initial appointments and 21 veterans died while on the waiting list.
The VA refused to let reporters into the meeting and declined requests by Pearce's staff to record the discussion. Still, the congressman said the meeting marked a first step toward identifying what works and what needs fixing within New Mexico's VA.
A decorated Vietnam veteran, Pearce said the solutions will involve more than spending money on an agency that has seen its budget double since the congressman was first elected in 2002.
"What happens is in Washington, money is an easy answer. Send more money, and we can all forget about it," Pearce said. "No. This is very hard and thorny. We need to sit down and have uncomfortable discussions."
The uproar began two months ago with allegations of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. A subsequent government audit showed more than 57,000 veterans across the country waited at least three months for their first appointments at Veterans Affairs medical centers and an additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA care over the past decade never got seen by a doctor.
The VA's Office of Inspector General has yet to issue findings from its investigation, but the audit has recommended a further review of operations within the New Mexico VA system.
Dr. James Robbins, interim director of the New Mexico VA, acknowledged earlier this week that the system has problems with wait times but has been working over the past year to improve the situation. Two more doctors and teams of assistants are being hired, and schedulers are in line for new training, Robbins said.
Some veterans who accompanied Pearce to Friday's meeting said they have had no problems getting appointments and that the care they received was good. However, others talked about waiting months to see a doctor and shared stories about loved ones receiving uncompassionate care.
Pearce is planning more meetings with VA officials in the coming weeks. Other members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are also pushing for an independent investigation and for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved.