COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left a meeting with Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital leadership Thursday morning encouraged by the way the facility treats mental health issues, but urged against complacency in the wake of a national scandal that has rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Blunt was at the hospital as part of his statewide tour focusing on mental health treatment.
"I think I got some good information here today, and I thought they were headed in the right direction," he said. "But ... I don't think we should be satisfied with the performance of any of our veterans facilities right now."
National outrage erupted earlier this month in light of allegations that employees at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs medical center falsified waiting lists to maintain the appearance of timely care for veterans. An investigation by the department's Office of Inspector General found that the issues were widespread throughout the 1,700 VA facilities nationwide, which provide medical care to 6.5 million veterans each year. As of Wednesday, the inspector general had 42 centers under investigation.
The scandal has led some in Washington to call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, but Blunt said the resignation of one person won't solve the problem.
"If this secretary leaves, then we'll give the new one a few years to get up to speed, and then there'll be a new president, and then there will be another new secretary," he said. "I think it's time to answer these questions and to find solutions worthy of our veterans and worthy of their services."
Blunt's speech also highlighted some of the steps the hospital has taken to care for its patients, including measures to address mental health cases requiring immediate care.
"If you've got a mental health problem ... that needs to be dealt with that day, no waiting list is good enough," he said.
Stephen Gaither, public affairs officer for the hospital, said 74 percent of new patients with mental health issues are able to get an appointment within 14 days — above the 70-percent requirement set by the VA. Gaither said the average waiting time for an appointment is around 20 days.
Blunt also applauded the hospital for its willingness to outsource some of its care as it works to ensure all veterans get the timely care they need. The Obama administration announced Saturday that it would allow more veterans to receive medical care at private civilian hospitals to ease the burden on overbooked VA facilities.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released the results of her office's survey of veterans' experiences at VA facilities in Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis. The results of the survey showed that Columbia-area veterans facilities, including the hospital, ranked higher than others in the state. Almost 80 percent of respondents rated their experience as "excellent" or "above average," which was significantly higher than results from St. Louis and Kansas City.
Blunt's meeting also came a day after U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., met with hospital administrators in the wake of the national scandal. Hartzler said in a statement she is pleased by the care the hospital is providing and the steps it is taking to make improvements where necessary.