Washington A former Veterans Affairs official said Thursday he warned the department as early as August 2005 of backlogs in the VA benefits claims system but officials instead shelved a program aimed at alleviating delays.
Paul Sullivan, a former project manager for the VA, told a House panel investigating veterans care that he helped develop a program to consolidate medical records with the Defense Department but that the program suddenly ended once Secretary Jim Nicholson took office in early 2005.
Sullivan also said he sent e-mails warning of a surge in claims from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and that more staffing and funding were needed.
"I made those warnings on several occasions," he said, but never received a response.
Testimony from Sullivan and the Government Accountability Office painted a picture of neglect, bureaucratic delays and poor coordination in the nation's vast network of 1,400 VA hospitals and clinics.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage.
"That's unacceptable and embarrassing, and the American people deserve answers," said Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., chairman of the subcommittee. "I'm not convinced the Veterans Affairs Department is doing its part."
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., agreed, citing years of warnings. "I can't even begin to count the number of GAO reports over the years outlining the problems," he said. "It's been 20 years in the making trying to get the VA and DoD to cooperate."
Responding, Michael Kussman, acting under secretary for health at the VA, told the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee that it was wrong to suggest that Nicholson had shelved the program. The decision to abandon Sullivan's plan was made by program officials who determined it was logistically unsound, Kussman said.
Since then, department officials have been working on a system to improve tracking of medical records, he said.
Under questioning, Kussman also acknowledged that the department was a bit "surprised" by the extent of reported cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury but was making adjustments to cope. "We are ideally poised to take care of" the growing caseload, he said.
That drew an angry response from Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.
"I find that kind of misplaced optimism, that defense of the system, a cause of where we are today," Filner said, noting that VA officials in individual clinics themselves had reported an overstressed system.
"The VA is strained to the limits," he said. "It's our job to give you more resources, but it's your job to say if you need it."