Veterans Affairs Department leaders have been telling Congress that wait times have decreased and access has increased at VA healthcare facilities. But not everyone is buying it and some critics are spreading their message.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said at a hearing last month that 22% of veterans seeking healthcare get same-day appointments and that, on average, national wait times are down to four days for primary care, five days for specialty care and three days for mental health care.
Ron Nesler, a veteran from New Harmony, Ind., however, is not convinced. He launched a “VA is Lying” social media campaign with a Facebook page and a website. The hashtag #VAIsLying is being used on Twitter.
The campaign has led to a fundraising effort to pay for billboards declaring that “VA is lying. Veterans are dying!”
“VA hates these billboards,” Nesler tweeted. “Don't you just love it!”
Andrew Welch, director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System, was taking it in stride. Welch told television station KOAT, ABC's Albuquerque affiliate, that veterans fought for all Americans' freedom of speech—including their own. And, if vets had specific complaints, he wanted to hear them.
“If we didn't get it right, we want to know so that we can get it right,” Welch told KOAT.
But at a Sept. 22 hearing, four VA whistleblowers, including one who referred to the VA office of the inspector general as “a joke,” said criticism is not welcome.
VA whistleblower complaints are investigated by the Office of Special Counsel. Carolyn Lerner, who heads the OSC, told the panel that her office's 140 employees are “inundated and overwhelmed.” But Lerner took that as a positive sign as, previously, VA employees did not come forward out of fear of retaliation or because they felt that there would be no action taken on their complaint.
But, while the OSC received a positive response from senators at this week's hearing, lawmakers criticized the inspector general's office as a rudderless agency. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said it was “absurd” that the office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013.