How does the Veterans Health Administration ensure that its 170 medical centers are providing timely, high-quality care to veterans? VHA uses national policies and guidance that cover all aspects of health care delivery, such as purchasing community care and scheduling outpatient appointments.
We looked at how VHA defines and communicates its national policy and guidance and collects information on local implementation challenges. Among the issues we found was that VHA does not consistently solicit input from the local level before issuing policy or after implementing it.
We made 6 recommendations to address this and other challenges.
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What GAO Found
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—is taking steps to align existing national policy documents with newly revised definitions that streamline and clarify document use. According to the new definitions in its June 2016 directive on policy management, directives and notices are now the sole documents for establishing national policy; other types of documents, such as program office memos, are considered guidance. VHA is reviewing about 800 existing national policy documents to eliminate those that no longer meet its new definitions, and to rescind or recertify those that are outdated. At this time, VHA is not planning to review guidance documents, such as program office memos and standard operating procedures, to assess whether they align with its updated directive, because there is no central repository for these documents and it would be too resource intensive to locate all of them. Further, GAO's review found—contrary to VHA's updated directive—that program offices are continuing to use memos to issue policy. The continued use of program office memos to establish national policy undermines VHA's efforts to improve its policy management.
VHA has a standard process for making national policy documents accessible to VA medical centers (VAMC) and the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) to which the medical centers report, but lacks a process for making guidance documents accessible. VHA makes national policy documents accessible to all organizational levels through a publications website and e-mail distribution list as outlined in its June 2016 directive. However, GAO found that VHA has not established a similar process for program offices to make guidance documents accessible at the local level. Specifically, there is no central repository, such as a publications website, for guidance documents, and the program offices do not track or consistently disseminate the guidance documents they issue. Without a standard process for consistently maintaining and disseminating guidance, VHA lacks assurance that staff receive and follow the same guidance, as intended.
VHA does not routinely collect information on local challenges with national policy implementation or on exemption waivers. The four VISNs and eight VAMCs in GAO's review reported various challenges they face when implementing national policy, such as resource constraints and undefined time frames. In instances where VAMCs cannot meet policy requirements, program offices may approve policy exemption waivers on an ad hoc basis. However, GAO found that VHA lacks complete information on approved policy exemption waivers because it does not have a standard process for approving, tracking, and reassessing them. In recognition of this issue, VHA established a committee to develop a waiver process in June 2017.
VISNs and VAMCs in GAO's review develop and maintain various local policies, but VHA does not ensure that they align with national policies. Specifically, GAO found that VHA does not have a process for program offices to systematically ensure that local policies align with national policies. Without such a process, VHA may continue to experience inconsistent policy implementation across its health care system.
Why GAO Did This Study
GAO was asked to conduct a management review of VHA; this is the sixth report in the series. In this review of VHA's policy management, GAO examines the extent to which (1) VHA has implemented its new definitions for national policy and guidance documents; (2) VHA ensures that national policy and guidance documents are accessible to VISNs and VAMCs; (3) VHA collects information on local challenges with implementing national policy, including the exemptions granted when policy requirements cannot be met; and (4) local policies are developed and maintained by VISNs and VAMCs, and whether they are aligned with national policies.
GAO reviewed agency documentation, including VHA's revised directive on policy management. GAO also interviewed VHA officials involved with policy improvement efforts, as well as officials from a nongeneralizable sample of four national program offices, four VISNs, and eight VAMCs selected to provide geographic variation, among other factors.
GAO is making six recommendations to VHA, which include clarifying national policy and guidance documents, ensuring access to guidance documents, incorporating local feedback into national policy, establishing a process to approve and track policy exemption waivers, and ensuring alignment of local and national policy. VHA generally concurred with GAO's recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Veterans Health Administration||
Priority Rec.1. The Under Secretary for Health should further clarify when and for what purposes each national policy and guidance document type should be used, including whether guidance documents, such as program office memos, should be vetted and recertified. (Recommendation 1)
|Veterans Health Administration||2. The Under Secretary for Health should develop standard processes for consistently maintaining and disseminating guidance documents to each level of the organization. (Recommendation 2)|
|Veterans Health Administration||3. The Under Secretary for Health should systematically obtain information on potential implementation challenges from VISNs and VAMCs and take the appropriate actions to address challenges prior to policy issuance. (Recommendation 3)|
|Veterans Health Administration||4. The Under Secretary for Health should establish a mechanism by which program offices systematically obtain feedback from VISNs and VAMCs on national policy after implementation and take the appropriate actions. (Recommendation 4)|
|Veterans Health Administration||5. The Under Secretary for Health should establish a standard policy exemption waiver process and centrally track and monitor approved waivers. (Recommendation 5)|
|Veterans Health Administration||6. The Under Secretary for Health should establish a standard process, including designated oversight roles, to periodically monitor that local policies established by VISNs and VAMCs align with national policies. (Recommendation 6)|