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VA Reform Begins: Local Clinics Flagged For Further Review

Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System

Earlier this week, when the Veterans Affairs released the results of a nationwide audit of VA healthcare facilities, two local clinics in the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare system were on a list of 112 that had been flagged for further investigation. Since Monday, a lot has been done to deal with the VA health care system to deal with issues such as the back log of veterans waiting to be seen and problems of questionable practices that have been uncovered.

Amongst the happenings, Florida’s 1st District Congressman Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, convened a hearing this Thursday morning to Examine the Bureaucratic Barriers to Care for Veterans.' 

“The VA healthcare system and the bureaucratic behemoth that accompanies it is complex and its problems are even more complex.”

In his opening remarks, Miller (R-Chumuckla)  said he was confident that the majority of VA’s workforce endeavors to provide veterans with high quality healthcare. But, he says those workers have been failed by VA leadership. “And, correcting those failures is going to take a lot more than the Band-aid fixes the department has proposed thus far. It’s gonna' take wholesale systematic reform of the entire department, starting with holding the senior staff accountable.”

Called as a witness at the hearing was Dan Collard, Chief Operating Officer for The Studer Group, an internationally recognized healthcare consulting firm based in the Pensacola area.

As the public has watched the VA issues unfold over the past 60 days, it’s clear the tolerance for variance is chief among its ailments. The amount of variance and the lack of willingness to standardize leadership has created an unfortunately, predictable outcome. As we’d like to say what you permit, you promote,” said Collard.

In answering Congressman Miller’s questions as to the greatest single barrier within the VA to providing timely healthcare, fellow witness Tim McClain, President of Humana Government Business, agreed with Collard in pointing to the need for standardization.

You’ve all heard it. If you’ve seen one VA, you’ve seen one VA. And, there is too much flexibility or variability in how services are delivered and how veterans can access services at each of the facilities,” according to McClain.

The VA healthcare system has been in the spotlight over the last couple of months, as House Committee investigations uncovered evidence suggesting that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for care at the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care system, and that the number of deaths across the country could be as high as 60. The investigation also revealed lengthy delays in care and manipulation of scheduling data at the (Phoenix) facility.

An internal audit released this week confirmed additional such problems throughout the system.

More than 57 thousand veterans have been waiting for care or their first medical appointment and an additional 64 thousand veterans who have enrolled in the healthcare system in the last 10 years never received the care they requested.

The audit flagged 112 VA healthcare facilities nationwide for further investigation. That includes the Joint Ambulatory Care Center in Pensacola and the outpatient clinic at Eglin Air Force Base, which are among four of the five clinics in the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System on the list. Jerron Barnett is a public affairs specialist for the Gulf Coast region. “The scheduling inconsistencies was one of the major focuses of the audit team to see if we were doing the scheduling correct, by the book, by the guidelines and if we weren’t to fix those problems. But, if there was any suspected misconduct in scheduling that was gonna' require further review - and we’re waiting on the exact details on that; and, if that exists for VA Gulf Coast, we’re gonna' fix those problems, no doubt about it,” says Barnett.

In fiscal year 2013, the VA health care facilities at Pensacola and Eglin served nearly 40 thousand veterans across the region. According to Nancy Weaver, associate director of outpatient operations for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, the average wait time for new patients to get their initial appointment with a primary care doctor is 31 days from the date of contact and for new patients at the Pensacola facility, the wait time for an initial doctor’s appointment is 28 days.

Barnett reiterated their pledge to make the situation right. “No veteran should have to wait an extended period of time to get the care they deserve so, the data is what the data is, but we’ve got an opportunity to improve care and access to care to veterans and that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”

According to Barnett, the Gulf Coast system has already made some improvements, by aggressively stepping up their on-going focus on recruiting (medical) personnel to fill vacancies at Pensacola and Eglin and across the region, which includes facilities in Panama City, Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi.

In other developments this week, the FBI has announced the opening of a criminal investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs. Also, the Senate and House have passed bills to address the issue of VA healthcare accessibility.

H.R. 4810, introduced by Congressman Jeff Miller passed the full House Tuesday, without amendment and without opposition, 426-0.