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New VA Secretary Praised Hospital Where 6 Vets Died After Screening Delays

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Chuck Ross
Reporter

The new secretary of Veterans Affairs praised a hospital in Columbia, S.C. as one of the top performing VAs in the U.S., though cancer screening delays at the facility were responsible for the deaths of six veterans.

Robert McDonald issued praise for the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Medical Center in a speech he gave Tuesday at the 96th annual American Legion convention.

“The result was seen in the stark difference between receiving care at, say, one of our highest performing locations, like the medical center not far from here in Columbia, S.C. – and until recently, at Phoenix,” said McDonald, who took over the agency’s top spot last month after the forced resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki amid a scandal over delayed care.

“I think it’s important to note that last year, the Joint Commission — which accredits and certifies health care organizations — named the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Medical Center there…and 31 other VA hospitals…as ‘Top Performers’ in its annual review of patient care,” McDonald said, according to his prepared remarks.

But McDonald’s praise — and the Joint Commission’s accolades — do not comport with a pair of disturbing reports issued last year, one from the agency’s office of the inspector general and another from the Associated Press.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which published its report last September, found that 52 gastroenterology (GI) malignancies were associated with delayed colonoscopies and other screening measures.

“Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) and facility leaders became aware of the GI consult backlog in July 2011 involving 2,500 delayed consults, 700 of them ‘critical,’” the inspector general’s report reads.

An action plan was put in place in Jan. 2012 but did not reduce the backlog, which had reached 3,800 by Dec. 2011. But administrators buckled down, and by Oct. 2012 the backlog had been reduced.

Following that report, the Associated Press dug further and found that the diagnostic and screening delays were responsible for the deaths of six veterans from colorectal cancer.

In September 2011, VISN awarded the Dorn facility $1 million to pay for fees associated with colonoscopies. But according to the OIG report, the facility had only used $275,000 to address the GI issue as of August 2012.

“The Business Office was not aware that the additional monies were ‘earmarked’ to address the GI backlog and obligated the funds as usual,” the OIG report reads.

The OIG documented other issues, including staff’s failure to properly use electronic waiting lists. The report did not indicate that the waiting list issue involved the use of false waiting lists that have been used at other VA facilities to hide backlogs.

Full-time clinical positions were also “difficult to get approved,” according to the report, which also found that “despite repeated requests, Nursing Service did not promptly hire GI nurses, and critical positions went unfilled for long periods.”

Overall, nine veterans (or their families) have filed lawsuits against the Dorn facility, the OIG reported.

In his other remarks Tuesday, McDonald, a 1975 West Point graduate and former CEO of Procter & Gamble, praised President Barack Obama.

“President Obama’s presence here at your convention, his steady support of VA over the past six-and-a-half years, and the leadership he has demonstrated in driving greater support and opportunities for veterans are all evidence of his strong, unwavering support of veterans,” McDonald said, adding that Obama has “taken the lead in calling for elimination of the claims backlog.”

“There is no stronger advocate for veterans than President Obama,” said McDonald, whom Obama nominated last month.

The Joint Commission noted by McDonald gave the Dorn facility its “Top Performer” award based on a set of metrics, including achieving performance ratings of more than 95 percent across several accountability measures.

“The delays for those Veterans waiting for Gastrointestinal Care in Columbia have been resolved,” VA spokesman James Hutton told The Daily Caller. “VA takes any delays in care very seriously and took action to hire additional staff, has implemented the use of improved screening tests, better tracks consult appointments, and has used fee-based care to provide screenings in the community.”

Hutton also pointed to the Joint Commission’s designation of the Dorn facility as a Top Performer.

“The VAMC was recognized by The Joint Commission for exemplary performance in using evidence-based clinical processes that are shown to improve care for certain conditions including heart attack, heart failure, pneumonia, surgical care, stroke and venous thromboembolis,” Hutton told TheDC through email.

A spokeswoman for The Joint Commission noted that hospitals report information used to determine Top Performers and that the award does not indicate the level of service individual patients will receive.

“The Top Performer on Key Quality Measures program is designed to inspire better performance on accountability measures, it is not a reflection of the overall care at an organization,” Commission spokeswoman Elizabeth Zhani told TheDC.

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