Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he will sue the federal government to demand that personnel from the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration’s (AHCA) be permitted to inspect and regulate Florida’s VA hospitals.
“As the chief health policy and planning entity for the state that licenses, inspects, and investigates consumer complaints, AHCA should be allowed access to federal VA hospitals to inspect their processes and their facilities,” Scott said in a press release. “The suit will stop the federal government from obstructing AHCA’s inspections of these facilities.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is under intense scrutiny after it was revealed that long delays for medical appointments have led to the deaths of numerous veterans. In a Phoenix facility alone, some 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment. The staff there reportedly kept a secret log of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.
In February, The Tampa Tribune reported that between 2009 and 2011, in the southeast VA region, which includes Florida, five veterans had died of cancer due to delays in common procedures such as colonoscopies and endoscopies. One of the deaths had occurred at the VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach.
On April 1, Scott sent a letter to AHCA officials saying he wanted VA hospitals inspected by state personnel, setting up a jurisdictional struggle with the federal government. On seven occasions since then state inspectors were turned away from VA hospitals, Scott said, including at the Riviera Beach facility on April 3.
“State inspectors have been blocked by federal officials from carrying out their mission of ensuring facilities in Florida meet the health care needs of our veterans,” Scott said. “I have asked AHCA to sue the federal veterans affairs agency to shine a light on their activities and protect the lives of our heroes who have earned nothing short of access to the best care possible.”
The complaint will be filed against U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has been under pressure to resign, especially from Republican members of Congress.
Robert Miller, 72, commander of American Legion Post 199 in West Palm Beach and a Vietnam War veteran, praised the Riviera Beach facility.
“The folks at the VA hospital treat us real well up there and they shouldn’t have anything to be afraid of by letting those inspectors in,” Miller said. “I don’t see a problem. I don’t think they have anything to hide.
“But the other question is: Do the state inspectors have the right to go in there?” Miller said. “And on top of that, this governor never paid much attention to veterans before and now that there is an election coming up, he’s talking about this. Is he just using the VA to build his platform?”
Louis Shanley, 65, commander of VFW Post 2007 in West Palm Beach, also a Vietnam veteran, praised the local facility as well.
“I get treated like a king there,” he said. He has no argument with state inspections on principle, but believes that anyone reviewing performance at VA hospitals should have the proper experience.
“I think they should be medically qualified and I also think they should have experience in the military,” Shanley said. “We have lots of doctors and nurses who are veterans. They would be the best people to judge treatment of veterans”
The VA has announced that 26 hospitals nationwide are being investigated regarding delayed medical appointments. No list has been released and it is not known if the Riviera Beach facility is being investigated. The hospital declined to comment on Scott’s plan to sue.
“Until such time as legal action is filed, it would be inappropriate for us to speculate about the specifics of such litigation,” said spokesperson Mary Ann Goodman.
In his press release Scott said that Florida is home to 1.5 million veterans.
“We’re committed to being the most veteran-friendly state in the nation – and reports of deaths, neglect, poor conditions and a secret waiting list in federal VA hospitals in Florida are unacceptable,” Scott said. “To date, Sec. Shinseki has refused to step down, our inspectors continue to be turned away, and none of the information we’ve asked for has been provided. Transparency and accountability are critical to supporting our veterans, and this suit will fight the federal VA’s continued practice of stonewalling our inspectors.”
Democrats responded Wednesday, attacking Scott’s timing.
“It’s a political stunt in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign,” said U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, an Army veteran, who has been a vocal critic of the VA’s performance. Nelson said the state has no jurisdiction over the VA hospitals.
Former Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in November and Scott’s most likely opponent, also questioned Scott’s motivation.
“Veterans deserve better treatment – from the VA and from Rick Scott,” Crist said. “This appears to be a political publicity stunt by Rick Scott, instead of an attempt to solve a real problem. Meanwhile, more than 41,000 veterans are without coverage because of the failure to expand Medicaid.”
Last year the Riviera Beach VA and its six clinics reported 690,000 primary care and outpatient visits by veterans, up 30 percent since 2006, Goodman said. She said emergency cases are seen right away and that there were no long waits for veterans with cardiology and cancer complaints. But despite requests by The Palm Beach Post, the hospital has not released specific data on just how long the waits are.
Shinseki announced last week that more veterans will be allowed to seek private care, at federal expense, when their wait times for appointments are considered too long.