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Executives responsible for Augusta VA consult delays likely won't face punishment

The senior-level executives responsible for delays in care at veterans affairs medical centers in Augusta and Columbia probably won’t face punishment because they retired before they could be disciplined, VA leadership testified before Congress Wednesday.

Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA under secretary of health, said during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing that in the past two years, six senior executives within the VA have been removed or resigned under the threat of disciplinary action involving preventable deaths. Nine deaths at the Augusta and Columbia hospitals have been attributed to the delays in care.

Three of the resignations came in Columbia and Petzel said “a number” of other executive departures happened in Augusta, where three cancer-related deaths were revealed last year in the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center’s gastrointestinal program because 5,100 endoscopies were delayed.

Petzel did not disclose the names of the Augusta administrators who resigned, but said he would provide the committee more detail on the retirements within the next 30 days. A VA spokeswoman did not return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment.

“You mean there is no way to hold (these executives) accountable when people die because of their failures?” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked during the hearing.

“If someone wishes to resign or retire we cannot prevent that from happening,” Petzel said, adding no criminal charges or intent has been cited in any of the deaths at the two hospitals.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is investigating the administration of Rebecca Wiley, the former director of the VA centers in Augusta and Columbia, for its connection to the deaths.

Wiley voluntarily retired from the VA on Oct. 1, as the Augusta medical center brought in additional resources, held weekend clinics and referred patients into the community to clear more than 5,000 endoscopy consultations that had been delayed in its embattled GI program.

The North Augusta resident has denied repeated requests for interviews and comment by The Augusta Chronicle.

Petzel said the VA immediately addresses allegations of misconduct when they are identified through its “extensive oversight system,” which includes special counsel, the VA Office of the Inspector General, and the U.S. General Accountability Office.

He said last year, the VA removed 3,100 employees, or 1 percent of its workforce.

“We do discipline our work­force,” Petzel said. “We do hold our workforce accountable.”

Petzel and his staff said the VA has developed new productivity standards for 81 percent of its specialty lines, including gastrointestinal, and that they should have all models finished by year’s end.

Though the new standards will include an algorithm that links health care access to effective and accurate outcomes, members of the committee seemed unimpressed.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said what he found most surprising from the hearing was none of the VA executives present had previous experience in the medical industry’s private sector.

He asked VA leadership how many patients on average are seen in an eight-hour day in a typical outpatient orthopedic clinic, but staff could not provide an answer.

“You say you’ve been doing this and we’ve been talking about it for the past year, but you do not have an idea,” Wenstrup, a former chairman of a 26-doctor orthopedic group, said of the VA designing new metrics. “If you don’t have those numbers, you don’t have a base number to start with.”

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