Officials laud new VA research center, talk about scandal

May. 23, 2014 @ 04:32 PM

Durham’s two U.S. congressmen gave high marks Friday to the VA Medical Center’s new research center, and said problems rocking the Veterans Affairs system nationwide will be investigated and fixed.
The remarks by Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st, and Rep. David Price, D-4th, came at a ribbon-cutting for the VA’s $13.8 million building at 508 Fulton St. on the VA campus. The five-story, 44,000-square-foot facility is dedicated to research projects that include post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, spinal cord injury and infectious disease.
Fifty employees will work in the building, including 24 active research investigators and 26 support staff.
“This center will take veterans’ health care to another level,” Butterfield said. “We've made a promise to provide excellent care to veterans, and it is our obligation to keep that promise.”
But Butterfield said he came to the celebration with mixed emotions because of the scandal involving allegations that U.S. veterans have died while waiting for treatment at some VA hospitals.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has ordered an audit at all VA clinics, including Durham’s, following claims that hospitals manipulated health-care appointments, including an allegedly secret waiting list in Phoenix, Ariz.
Two Durham VA Medical Center employees have been put on administrative leave because of “inappropriate scheduling practices,” the Department of Veteran Affairs said Monday.
In interviews this week with The Herald-Sun, four wounded war veterans weighed in on their experiences trying to make appointments as outpatients at the Durham VA. One man in severe pain said he tried to make an appointment, but was told the earliest he could be seen was in three months, so he went to the emergency room instead. The other three said they had experienced no wait problems, and described their treatment as excellent.
Butterfield said he plans to use his vote and his office’s influence “to correct the failures that clearly exist.”
“I join millions of Americans, including President Obama, who are outraged over recent reports that some VA hospitals have failed to provide the highest standard of care to their patients,” Butterfield said. “An ongoing investigation will uncover all the facts, and I am confident that the executive branch will act decisively.”
Echoing that concern, Price, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that can influence VA funding, said the allegations are being investigated by a special overseer appointed by President Obama.
“We’re troubled by allegations of unacceptable practices in some components of the VA,” Price said. “It is being pursued, and it needs to be pursued.”
Price said Congress may need to step in “and act on the information that is developed.” “But we don’t want to be entirely reactive,” he said. “We need to take hold of challenges, to be proactive, and look at all the processes of the VA programs.”
Price said veterans deserve superior care.
“From the time they come in the door to the time they leave after treatment, we need to ensure that our veterans receive the best treatment possible,” he said.
Also at the ceremony was U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who called the research building “an investment in the future.”
“This center provides 21st-century medicine,” he said. Alluding to the scandal, Burr added: “Just because some individuals may have made bad choices and may not have remembered what the mission of the VA is, don’t forget there are hundreds of people here and thousands nationwide who work to provide the best possible care for our veterans.”
Dr. Robert L. Jesse, acting under-secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the turbulent times at the VA will make the system better.
“We will be stronger and will get through this,” he said. “We’ll get through it because it is the veterans we serve -- that is our driving force. It is the commitment that we keep in our hearts.”