A memorable moment from last night’s House hearing courtesy of Florida’s Corrine Brown, whose congressional legacy is already secure. I’ll say this for her: It takes guts to double down on your faith in the VA after yesterday’s IG report, at a moment when more prominent Democrats like Al Franken and Jeanne Shaheen are running in terror from Shinseki.
Then again, it’s a fine line between “guts” and “reckless stupidity.” Remember this story from a few weeks ago?
Three mental health administrators at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville have been placed on administrative leave after U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials found a “secret” waiting list of more than 200 patients, a local union president said Thursday.
The director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, Thomas Wisnieski, however, said what officials found was a paper list of patients who needed appointment callbacks. That list isn’t considered proper protocol, Wisnieski said.
Wisnieski said the list was not a secret waiting list, but he also said he did not know about it until a VA team discovered it while visiting the hospital Tuesday for a review…
Some of the patients on the list had been waiting six months or more for an appointment when the goal of VA hospitals is to schedule appointments within 14 days of getting a call, she said.
A few hours before Brown made this speech at the hearing, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that he was suing the VA in Florida for “stonewalling” state health inspectors. Local VA hospitals have turned away the inspectors repeatedly on grounds that Florida has no authority over federal hospitals, which may be a winning argument in court but looks ludicrously shady now that the public’s paying close attention to the scandal. (For Scott, who’s up for reelection this fall, it’s a brilliant bit of retail politics.) Speaking of which, if you read nothing else today, make sure you read Hal Scherz’s piece in the Journal recounting “war stories” from doctors who worked at the VA. If there’s any government agency that needs health inspectors peering over its shoulder, it’s this one:
In my experience at VA hospitals in San Antonio and San Diego, patients were seen in clinics that were understaffed and overscheduled. Appointments for X-rays and other tests had to be scheduled months in advance, and longer for surgery. Hospital administrators limited operating time, making sure that work stopped by 3 p.m. Consequently, the physician in charge kept a list of patients who needed surgery and rationed the available slots to those with the most urgent problems.
Scott Barbour, an orthopedic surgeon and a friend, trained at the Miami VA hospital. In an attempt to get more patients onto the operating-room schedule, he enlisted fellow residents to clean the operating rooms between cases and transport patients from their rooms into the surgical suites. Instead of offering praise for their industriousness, the chief of surgery reprimanded the doctors and put a stop to their actions. From his perspective, they were not solving a problem but were making federal workers look bad, and creating more work for others, like nurses, who had to take care of more post-op patients.
At the VA hospital in St. Louis, urologist Michael Packer, a former partner of mine, had difficulty getting charts from the medical records department. He and another resident hunted them down themselves. It was easier for department workers to say that they couldn’t find a chart than to go through the trouble of looking. Without these records, patients could not receive care, which was an unacceptable situation to these doctors. Not long after they began doing this, they were warned to stand down.
According to Scherz, the best news a vet could get from the VA was that the service he needed was unavailable. In that case he’d be sent to a doctor in private practice, who wouldn’t stick him on a secret wait list to languish for months. Even doctors within the agency, in other words, preferred to voucher this problem out in the name of getting prompt care for their patients.
As for Brown, she’s got to nothing to worry about in terms of an electoral backlash when, not if, this assurance of VA quality blows up in her face. Like most House incumbents, her seat is safe as can be. She won her last election by nearly 45 points.