Navy Didn’t Trust VA To Treat Sailors At Joint Hospital

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) workers are so inept and inefficient the Navy refused to let sailors be treated for serious conditions at a jointly operated military-VA hospital, defeating the purpose of the merged facility.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said after multiple unexplained deaths of sailors in the intensive care unit (ICU), “In light of this occurrence and the lack of resolution on previously identified ICU concerns, the deputy director determined that all Department of Defense (DOD) beneficiaries requiring ICU services would be diverted to other providers within the Tricare network until exclusion criteria (medical conditions for which patients should not be admitted to the FHCC’s ICU) could be better defined.”

The Daily Caller News Foundation reported last month the Lovell Federal Health Care facility in North Chicago is a pilot project exploring whether VA could be improved by merging it with military hospitals, in this case a former Navy hospital. Navy commanders’ decision not to use the intensive care unit at Lovell was just one instance of a recoiling by the military when it experienced underperformance by the VA.

Under the terms of the merger, the combined hospital is run by a director from the VA and a deputy director from the Navy.

But for years, the situation at Lovell was so bad the two would barely speak, and the VA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Health and his DOD counterpart had to personally travel to Illinois to order hospital director Patrick Sullivan to meet weekly with his second-in-command from the Navy.

When the two facilities were being combined in 2010 in the largest joint DOD-VA project ever, VA neglected to hire a director with skills required for managing a complex inter-agency merger. Instead, Sullivan remained in place, as he was director of the original VA hospital.

VA officials didn’t want to disturb anyone’s job — a union condition that, as often seems to happen at VA, was applied to rank-and-file workers and top executives alike. The GAO report said Sullivan was retained “in keeping with the departments’ decision that no individuals would lose their jobs as a result of the integration.” So Sullivan got management pay and union-style protections.

Sullivan’s job description was never revised, even though he was now running an entirely different hospital and his day-to-day duties consisted of managing a highly technical merger, rather than simply overseeing operations of a stable hospital.

The result was a failure to integrate the hospital couldn’t impact his performance reviews–and therefore his bonuses. Sullivan got a $61,000 bonus in 2011, soon after the merger.

“This shows how veterans are forced to accept care that no other demographic group in the country would tolerate. That even the Department of the Navy refuses to jeopardize its sailors’ well-being by sending them to the VA speaks volumes,” John Cooper, press secretary for the Concerned Veterans for America, said.

Stephanie Caccomo, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said Lovell’s troubles are behind it. “Based on the 2012 review, we initiated an ICU Action Tracker to implement the corrective actions from the review. All of those corrective actions have been completed. Lovell FHCC accepts and cares for veterans, active duty, retirees and beneficiaries in its ICU. We have also integrated the staffing in ICU, with Navy corpsmen and nurses serving in the unit alongside our civilian staff.”

Tensions have also eased somewhat since Sullivan’s resignation in 2014 with the appointment of a new director who hails from the VA but also has military experience.

But the GAO report suggests an initiative intended to improve VA by injecting positive elements of the military culture has instead come closer to dragging down the uniformed personnel with VA’s self-serving culture of bureaucratic apathy.

Most of the important medical units like the ICU were staffed primarily with VA employees thanks to the union condition that protected their jobs even though the purpose of the merger was to reduce overhead.

Military medics tried to introduce new, more disciplined ways of doing things, but union workers quickly found workarounds to maintain the status quo. Whereas military staffers were rotated every two years, VA workers essentially have their jobs for life, and when Navy men proposed innovations, VA workers would merely stonewall until the Navy people were transferred out, the GAO said. (RELATED: Congress May Fix Veterans Affairs By Merging It With Military Hospitals)

Rep. [crscore]Jeff Miller[/crscore], chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told TheDCNF that “so far, this arrangement has not solved many of the problems typically associated with VA or DOD health care. It has merely co-located them at the same facility. Getting past that will require more work.” (RELATED: The Plan to Fix VA Hospitals Failed Because It Was More Focused on Preserving Union Jobs)

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