VA responds to Phoenix failures with more funding and training

The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center's ambulatory care clinic in Phoenix, Ariz.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 14, 2016

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Friday that more money, training and employees would be part of an effort to correct the Phoenix VA Health Care System after an inspection found veterans continue to suffer with long waits for appointments with specialists.

The Phoenix VA was at the center of a scandal in 2014, when it was discovered veterans died while waiting for care. Staff had manipulated wait-time data there and at other VA hospitals across the United States.

After the U.S. government poured billions of dollars into reform efforts in following years, 215 patients died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA, according to a report released Oct. 4 by the VA’s Office of Inspector General. One patient was unable to see a VA cardiologist, which “may have contributed” to his death, the report stated.

“The sustained and continued improvement of the Phoenix VA Health Care System is a department priority,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a news release. “There are best practices and expertise from across the nation that we are bringing to bear in order to deliver more consistent, high-quality care to veterans.”

The VA announced it would allocate $28 million to the Phoenix VA in addition to its annual budget. Most of the funds will be used to hire more employees, said VA Press Secretary Victoria Dillon.

Leadership at the Phoenix VA is attempting to open two new facilities in early 2017, expanding its number of community-based clinics from seven to nine.

“One of the big challenges in Phoenix was not enough medical center staff, doctors and nurses, and not enough clinical space,” Dillon said.

They’re also providing more training on scheduling medical appointments. All new employees will be required to take a two-week course, while current employees will go through a three-day course, according to the release.

The inspector general’s office has issued a half-dozen reports in the past two years citing ongoing problems in Phoenix, despite new VA policies and increased training in scheduling appointments, the new report stated.

Inspectors found the number of active patient cases in Phoenix had grown from 32,500 in March to 38,000 by July. The additional cases were caused partly by staff not scheduling patient’s appointments in a timely manner, according to inspectors.

“As a result, patients attempting to get care at [the Phoenix VA] continued to encounter delays in obtaining such care,” the report read. “We substantiated that one patient waited in excess of 300 days for vascular care.”

Several lawmakers reacted to the findings, including Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., who is running against McCain in the November election.

“More than two years after the Phoenix VA Health Care System became ground zero for VA’s wait-time scandal, many of its original problems remain, and this report is proof of that sad fact,” Miller said in a written statement. “…it’s clear veterans are still dying while waiting for care, that delays may have contributed to the recent death of at least one veteran and the work environment in Phoenix is marred by confusion and dysfunction.”

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative-leaning veterans group, said Friday that the VA was only “throwing money at the problems in Phoenix.”

“This is a structural and cultural problem within the VA that starts at the top with the leadership,” Matt Dobson, the organization’s Arizona director, wrote in an emailed statement. “Wasting even more taxpayer dollars is not the answer.”

The inspector general’s report was released only about a week after the announcement of a new director for the beleaguered Phoenix VA. The appointment of RimaAnn Nelson, the seventh Phoenix director in three years, was criticized by lawmakers and veterans service organizations, including Concerned Veterans for America.

Nelson once led the VA health care system in St. Louis, where inspectors in 2011 found unsanitary conditions in a dental facility. The VA responded to the concerns by issuing a statement that Nelson appropriately closed the dental clinic and initiated a cleanup, the Arizona Republic reported.

Now that Nelson has filled the position, the VA is looking to fill two other leadership positions in Phoenix: the deputy medical center director and associate director.

In the VA release Friday, Nelson said she has started “frank conversations” in Phoenix about the path forward. Her statement came after Gibson’s second visit to Phoenix in two months.

Gibson is planning monthly visits through the end of the year, Dillon said.

“I’m appreciative of the support we’re receiving,” Nelson said. “Some of the best and brightest from across VA are coming to Phoenix and that can only mean good things for the veterans we serve.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling