'Something's got to happen': Veterans groups, workers at Spokane, Wash., VA hospital protest recommendation to end services
The Spokesman-Review June 1, 2022
SPOKANE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans and care providers stood side-by-side Tuesday morning to defend the 70-plus-year-old Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center from potential service cuts.
Federal decision-makers said they haven't yet finalized reductions in services offered at the hospital. But that has done little to deter protesters, including more than two dozen at times. They held signs defending hospital staff but criticizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They said they were spurred by a March report recommending that inpatient medical and surgical services be discontinued at the military hospital and instead take place in civilian and community health centers.
John Givens, anesthesiology chief at Mann-Grandstaff, said moving care to outpatient is poorly timed following the hospital's work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it would render the VA as "something unrecognizable" in the community.
"We need more services, not less services," Givens said.
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said last week in response to a question from The Spokesman-Review in the nation's capital that rumors that inpatient services at Mann-Grandstaff could be cut before the completion of a lengthy review process were "not accurate."
"So we're not planning, and I wouldn't agree to, a diminution of service pending completion of this process," McDonough said. He added that any final decision would not be made "behind closed doors."
That was little comfort to the gathering of former employees and veterans who've received services from Mann-Grandstaff, particularly those who said they'd witnessed firsthand delays in care during the controversial $16 billion rollout of a new electronic health record system that has been plagued by multiple outages and problems since October 2020.
"They're just slowly taking away, and eroding, the care that we get," said Louanne Hausmann, an Air Force major who worked as a nurse at the hospital for 20 years before leaving just as the new system, created by Kansas City-based health technology firm Cerner, came online. She waved as trucks passing honked their horns and drivers shouted encouraging phrases or gave a thumbs-up to the assembled group.
Charlie Monroe, department of Washington commander for the Seabee Veterans of America, said the records system, along with noncompetitive pay and other challenges, were driving good physicians away from the VA hospital and into other jobs. He praised Givens and other health care workers, including Monica McLaughlin, an urgent care nurse who joined the group, for persisting in helping veterans despite the challenges.
"It's more than a job for them, it's a vocation," said Monroe, clarifying with people walking up to their table in front of the hospital on Assembly Street that they supported health care workers, but were pushing against the recommendations laid out by VA administration.
McLaughlin pointed to a February 2022 study published in the British Medical Journal that found senior-age veterans in the United States taken to VA hospitals over a 17-year period from 2001 to 2018 had a 20% lower mortality rate than those taken to non-VA medical centers. The result was particularly better for Black (26%) and Hispanic (23%) veterans, indicating that familiarity with a patient led to a better outcome.
"What we do here at the VA saves lives," she said.
McLaughlin, herself a Navy veteran, said she'd experienced some difficulty with the Cerner records system as a patient , using the program's "portal" to send messages to her own provider in an attempt to be better prepared for patient questions.
Givens acknowledged that the system had been difficult to work with. Those difficulties would ensure the rollout to the rest of the VA system would go smoother, he said.
"Somebody's got to go first. We're the tip of the spear," he said. "The rest of the enterprise will benefit."
Veterans at the protest believed the military should have considered testing the system in a method that didn't put patient care at risk. In April, the Department of Veteran Affairs confirmed a patient had been hospitalized with heart failure after not getting necessary medication.
"We're the testbed," said Charlie Bourg, an Army veteran who believes his delayed diagnosis of an aggressive form of prostate cancer was due to a lost referral he attributes to the Cerner system. Doctors have since told him his cancer is terminal, Bourg said.
Bourg and Monroe, who have been part of past protests of reduced services at the Spokane facility, say they'll be back out front of the medical center to support those who care for them, even as supervisors weigh whether to accept the recommendation and end inpatient services at the hospital.
"Something's got to happen," Monroe said.
The Spokesman-Review staff writer Orion Donovan-Smith contributed to this report.
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