Political Horizons: VA scandal raises ugly head in La.

The same activities that evolved into a nationwide VA scandal are taking place here in Louisiana, says David LaCerte, who took over as head of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs a month ago.

He’s hearing from all corners of Louisiana about monthslong waits for military veterans wanting to see doctors. In fact, LaCerte says he’s been trying for weeks to get his own appointment at the Baton Rouge VA Outpatient Clinic.

What the state can do is limited. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs is charged with providing primary care.

“When it comes down to making an appointment, there’s nothing I can do. It’s really frustrating to know that the state doesn’t have any teeth,” LaCerte said in an interview last week from his unusually small office for a cabinet official.

Most of his high-ranking colleagues have grand suites with expensive art and expansive views of the Mississippi River or the State Capitol. LaCerte’s office has a view of the building’s entrance and is decorated with his scarlet and gold U.S. Marine Corps sergeant’s stripes plus a bumper sticker supporting Gov. Bobby Jindal.

After the Fourth of July holiday, LaCerte is launching a campaign to press federal authorities — preferably prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice — to look closely at the situation in the federal facilities that provide health care to about 312,000 veterans living in Louisiana.

The VA spends about $1.5 billion a year on a wide array of benefits and services for Louisiana veterans, including financial help for tuition and living expenses for about 6,500 college students and about 3,700 guaranteed loans to buy homes.

But after several wars and police actions, the agency has been overburdened and underfunded. The strain is showing up in the health care the VA provides for military veterans.

Earlier this year, The Arizona Republic newspaper reported that since 2012, physicians and whistleblowers said an overwhelmed VA hospital in Phoenix gamed the appointments calendars to make it look as if doctors were seeing veterans on a timely basis, which seemed at odds with what the patients were saying about waits that lasted for months.

The VA Inspector General reported, among several findings, that scheduling clerks and their supervisors were having trouble understanding how to operate the newly installed electronic appointment system. They were creating “secret waiting lists” and were doing things like entering appointment dates two months beyond what was requested to hide how long it took for patients to get care.

The inspectors also noted receiving allegations “of similar issues regarding manipulated waiting times” from other facilities around the country. A total of 112 VA medical facilities across the country were flagged for further review, including medical centers in Shreveport, Alexandria, New Orleans and the clinic in Baton Rouge.

Another whistleblower told U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport maintained a “secret wait list,” with 2,700 names on it and manipulated reported wait times. Thirty-seven veterans have died waiting for care, he said on June 26.

“It is high time an independent investigator and prosecutor is appointed to get to the bottom of these serious allegations,” LaCerte said.

Politicians of both partisan stripes have been quick to point fingers.

A good local example would be U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy’s June 5 comment that “only after news broke that our veterans are dying because of inadequate health care did Harry Reid and Senate Democrats take action.”

The “truth-o-meter” by PolitiFact.com on June 16 called the Baton Rouge Republican’s statement “revisionist history.”

The group said Cassidy accurately could have blamed Senate Democrats for not approving a House-written bill that would have provided more funding for VA health care, which was passed by the GOP-dominated U.S. House. Instead, Senate Democrats moved their own bill to accomplish the same purpose, but that measure was rejected by Senate Republicans.

Forget about who is at fault, LaCerte said. Focus instead on a thorough investigation to identify specific problems and clear the congestion in getting medical care for veterans.

“There are so many things that befuddle the VA right now,” LaCerte said. “It’s a shame that it takes a scandal for the VA to formulate a plan.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.