Veterans Health Administration:

Regional Networks Need Improved Oversight and Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities

GAO-19-462: Published: Jun 19, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2019.

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Contact:

Debra A. Draper
(202) 512-7114
draperd@gao.gov

 

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The Veterans Health Administration expects to provide medical care to more than 7 million veterans this year. It uses 18 regional networks to manage its 172 medical centers.

We found that VHA does not ensure its networks have the appropriate staff in place to effectively operate the network and to ensure medical centers are providing veterans timely access to quality care.

We recommended that VHA develop a process to assess the performance of its networks and ensure that they are appropriately staffed.

VA health care has been on our High Risk List since 2015.

 

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Additional Materials:

Contact:

Debra A. Draper
(202) 512-7114
draperd@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) oversight of its regional health care networks is limited. Within VHA, these networks—known as Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN)—manage the day-to-day functions of medical centers and also provide administrative and clinical oversight of medical centers. VHA’s approach for overseeing VISNs does not include an assessment of each VISN as a whole. Instead, to assess VISN operations, VHA primarily relies on performance assessments of individual VISN directors, which are based in part on medical center performance data. VHA officials acknowledged that a VISN director’s individual performance is not always indicative of the VISN’s performance as a whole. VHA supplements these assessments with periodic meetings with VISN leadership, including quarterly reviews on specific topics, such as patient quality assurance metrics and best practices. However, GAO found that these quarterly reviews do not typically include discussion of VISN-level performance measures, or how VISNs manage and oversee medical centers. By establishing a process for assessing the overall performance of VISNs in managing and overseeing medical centers, VHA would be better able to determine if a VISN’s performance is positive, if it is functioning poorly, or if it requires remediation.

VHA also lacks a comprehensive policy to define VISN roles and responsibilities. VHA and VISN officials told GAO they have several documents they believe help VISNs understand these roles and responsibilities. However, these documents either focus on specific policies and programs, or are tied to individuals. The lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities at the VISN level makes it difficult for VHA to develop an effective oversight process that ensures adequate monitoring of VISN activities.

VHA primarily oversees VISN staffing by using standardized staffing levels and positions, but does not ensure VISNs adhere to them. VHA has a standardized VISN organizational chart, which includes recommended staffing levels for each of the 18 VISNs—63 to 66 full-time-equivalent staff—and 28 key positions, including a chief medical officer and mental health lead, to be in place at each VISN. VHA officials told GAO they expect VISNs to adhere to the standardized chart, and that they conducted a one-time review that included checking that VISNs’ total full-time equivalents were within the allotted allowance. However, VHA’s review did not ensure that VISN organizational charts always included the 28 key positions laid out on the standardized chart. GAO found one to five key positions were not listed on the organizational charts of more than a third of VISNs, among those with organizational charts that VHA had reviewed and approved. For example, one VISN was missing both the primary care and geriatrics positions on its organizational chart. VISN officials provided various reasons for the positions not being listed on the organizational charts, including that these responsibilities were being performed as a collateral duty for VISN or medical center staff. Without effective oversight, VHA leadership cannot provide reasonable assurance that VISNs are appropriately staffed, which may hinder implementation of programs, and ultimately, the care veterans receive.

Why GAO Did This Study

VHA operates one of the nation's largest health care systems with 18 regional networks—VISNs—that manage and oversee 172 medical centers within defined geographic areas. VHA expects to provide care to more than 7 million veterans in fiscal year 2019, and demand for its services is expected to grow over time.

GAO was asked to conduct a review of VISNs, including VHA's oversight of VISNs. This report examines (1) the extent to which VHA oversees VISNs’ management and oversight of medical centers and (2) how VHA oversees VISN staffing.

GAO reviewed VHA policies, guidance, and staffing data regarding VISNs. GAO also interviewed officials from VHA, all 18 VISNs, and four medical centers selected for variation in geography, urban or rural location, and complexity.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that VHA (1) develop a process to assess the overall performance of VISNs in managing and overseeing medical centers, (2) establish a comprehensive policy that clearly defines VISN roles and responsibilities for managing and overseeing medical centers and (3) establish a process to routinely oversee VISN staffing. VHA concurred with the first and third recommendations, and concurred in principle with the second.

For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: VHA concurred with our recommendation. In December 2019, VHA reported efforts to modernize its governance structure with a newly created VHA Governance Board. In February 2020, VHA reported additional efforts to charter governance councils to support the VHA Governance Board and work continues to develop these councils and responsibilities, with a target completion date of September 2020. For closure, VHA will need to provide documentation that shows the process developed to assess the overall performance of VISNs in managing medical centers. Providing documentation explaining how these governance structures plan to assess overall VISN performance, including any metrics or tools that would be used as a part of this process, would be useful in determining if this recommendation can be considered for closure.

    Recommendation: The Under Secretary for Health should develop a process to assess the overall performance of VISNs in managing and overseeing medical centers. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs: Office of the Under Secretary for Health

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: VHA concurred in principle with our recommendation. In December 2019, VHA told us they were working to streamline reporting structures at all levels, focusing on governance and workflow, including defining consistent levels of authority. In February 2020, VHA told us they were realigning Central Office in addition to making changes to the governance structure to support clarity of roles and responsibilities. VHA plans to crosswalk existing policies to the new structure and organizations, with a target completion date of September 2020. Following completion of VHA's efforts to streamline Central Office and ensure reporting structures are in place, VHA will need to provide policy documentation that clearly outlines VISN roles and responsibilities, including how these governance structures plan to define the VISN's roles and responsibilities. While governance and reporting structures are a first step, it is important for roles and responsibilities to be clearly outlined in a policy vehicle, as VHA requires the use of policy to assign responsibilities for executing a course of action to individuals or groups.

    Recommendation: The Under Secretary for Health should establish a comprehensive policy that clearly defines VISN roles and responsibilities for managing and overseeing medical centers. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs: Office of the Under Secretary for Health

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: VHA concurred with our recommendation. In December 2019, VHA reported its office for Manpower Management began reviewing changes to VISN organizational structure and positions. In February 2020, VHA provided GAO with the guidance for VISN staffing and a draft Manpower Management directive, with target completion date of May 2020 for approval. For closure, VHA should provide the approved VA Directive 5010 documentation outlining the process developed to routinely oversee VISN staffing, including efforts by the DUSHOM in partnership with Workforce Management and Consulting and Manpower and Management, such as policy directives, organizational charts, amongst others.

    Recommendation: The Under Secretary for Health should establish a process to routinely oversee VISN staffing, to include ensuring VISNs are consistent with VHA's standardized VISN staffing levels and positions, and documenting the rationale for approving staffing that does not adhere to VHA's standardized approach. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs: Office of the Under Secretary for Health

 

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