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VA backlog gone, accountability issues remain

Health care administrators at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta reported Monday that they have hired additional staff and eliminated the hospital’s deadly backlog of more than 5,000 unresolved gastrointestinal consultations.

The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee applauded the efforts as a step in the right direction, but said during a congressional oversight visit at the Augusta hospital that he is concerned those responsible for the hospital’s missteps have not suffered serious enough consequences.

Following a review of consults in 2010 through 2013 at the Augusta VA, three cancer patients died and four other veterans were identified as being seriously harmed due to delays in the hospital’s gastrointestinal program.

All the affected families have been contacted except for one victim, whose next of kin could not be contacted despite repeated attempts by phone and certified mail, the Augusta VA said in a statement.

“Mistakes are going to be made at medical facilities because humans are involved, but what is happening here is there was a backlog of GI consults that grew over a long period of time,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during a news conference. “We want to know why and who made the decisions to allow this backlog to grow.”

Miller said the committee hopes to have answers within 30 days, but said he is unsure if that goal will be met.

A request for a copy of all performance reviews, pay bonuses and disciplinary actions filed since 2007 for the administration of former director Rebecca Wiley has remain unfulfilled for more than four months.

Plus, the congressman said administration at the Augusta VA shared “very little information” Monday as to why delays in care occurred.

Miller said the members of the facility’s executive office only said the cause was management’s failure to schedule primary physicians’ referrals for their patients to see gastroenterologists.

Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., said some primary physicians have filed complaints with the executive office for the delays in scheduling.

“If somebody has caused these problems, some heads need to roll,” said Broun, a former Marine and medical doctor who’s a member of the Navy Reserve.

In agreement with Broun and Miller were Reps. John Barrow, D-Ga; Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. Each of the congressmen said previous hospital administration is likely to blame for the lack of care, and that discipline of those involved rests in the hands of President Obama and Department of Veterans Affairs administration.

“Unfortunately, the pattern at the VA in the past has been if somebody has committed an error of some kind they move to another facility and that is not acceptable anymore, especially when it ends in the death of a patient,” Miller said.

Leaders at the Augusta VA would not comment on the congressmen’s remarks, but said in a statement that additional staff has been hired to meet the demand for services, and that consults are now tracked daily to ensure timely care is provided and to prevent future issues.

“We at the VA care very deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve,” the statement read. “We offer our sincerest condolences to veterans who have been affected and those families who have lost a loved one.”

Miller said some of the information the committee requested was delivered to his Washington office Friday, and that he plans to begin reviewing the documents today and start to work with House counsel to determine how the information can be released publicly in accordance with privacy laws.

In some cases, Miller said, the committee does plan to ask for information dating back further than 2007 and that he believes the VA will be forthcoming with the remaining information requested.

“I do not know what it will take to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to understand we don’t want to be in an adversarial situation, but constitutionally Congress has an oversight role and this is not a political issue,” he said. “We are not trying to come in and score points. I constantly say that if everybody will just be transparent with each other, this would be a better place.”

Broun said he will not rest until Congress finds the answers and gets America’s veterans world class care.

“We made a promise to our veterans and it is absolutely critical that we fulfill the promises we made,” he said. “If we don’t we are not going to be able to get good people to come in the military.”

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