MARION -- Two members of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee toured the Marion VA Medical Center this week and say the center is making progress at addressing problems brought to light by employees and patients over the past few years.
However, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro), a member of the committee, and committee Chairman Phil Roe, a congressman from Tennessee, said Tuesday that the Marion VA still has considerable work to do, and that the national VA leadership has not done enough.
Bost said after hearing from and working with people on the ground, he believes the VA is "moving in the right direction," but added, "there is still room for improvement."
"They've got a lot of work to do," Roe told reporters.
For more than a year, the Marion VA has been criticized by employees and former employees -- some who have talked with Veterans Affairs investigators and/or testified before congressional committees -- who complained about the misreading of multiple X-rays, nepotism in Marion VA hiring and that whistle-blowing employees were subjected to retaliation, among other complaints.
Neither congressman got into many specifics as to what had improved and what still needs to be addressed.
Bost did say, however, said he believes the radiology department is making progress.
"We met with the radiology group today," he said. "We listened. They are working to improve that. We believe that they are. We believe they are meeting the goals and criteria that was set forth to make sure that what happened here as far as the reading of the X-rays does not happen again."
As well, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report published on July 19 found several problems with how the VA handles employee misconduct cases, citing:
• VA doesn't always maintain required files and documents for adjudication, suggesting that employees may not have received due process.
• VA officials found guilty of misconduct sometimes received a lesser punishment than recommended or no punishment.
• Whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to receive disciplinary action within a year of reporting misconduct.
In January, Bost called on then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to fire the Marion VA's human resources director, charging that the HR department was failing its core mission. He said the congressional subcommittee of oversight and investigations determined that the VA had prolonged difficulty recruiting and retaining staff; was failing to track and enforce training standards; had grossly inconsistent salaries among staff; low morale and a lack of proper training and discipline.
The VA refused to fire the human resources director, saying he had served the VA with "dedication and distinction" for many years and that he was instrumental in helping guide several important recent recruiting efforts, and implemented an electronic performance appraisal system that was recognized nationally as a best practice.
Bost, noting that Marion's human resources director has no college degree -- not unlike other HR directors in the VA system, as the VA currently does not require them -- recently sponsored H.R. 5864, the VA Hospitals Establishing Leadership Performance (HELP) Act. The Act would establish qualifications for each HR position within the VHA and establish standardized performance metrics similar to the private sector.
That bill has passed the House and now heads to the Senate.
Bost said that during previous site visits, "multiple employees raised concerns about poor management and poor communication, distrust between leadership and management, and the lack of accountability."
"Despite several efforts to encourage VA Headquarters leadership to address these problems, limited actions have been taken and my office continues to receive complaints," he added.
Bost said his door remains open to complaints from VA patients and employees, adding he has to weigh each one to decide if there is a problem or if the complainant is merely disgruntled.
He also acknowledged that the on-site visits might not produce the best results.
"People may be scared to speak up on the hospital grounds," he said. "I'm not naive to that."
Rocky Morris of the Benton-based Point Man Watchdog group, Vietnam veterans who advocate for fellow veterans, was at the news conference. He said while he believes he has gotten good care, he has been distressed by allegations that multiple radiology scans were misread at the VA.
"We've got to fix things in the past to move forward," he said, adding he wants to make sure that every veteran whose X-rays may have been misread has the opportunity to be retested or have their scans reread.
Bost said he was told that patients are being notified.
In closing the briefing, Roe said even with the "deluge of bad press about the VA across the country," one thing should be remembered.
"There's a lot of good care that goes on."