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Blue Shield of California Announces Help for Independent Doctors-A
   Warning
Medicare for All-Good Idea or Political Death?
What Will Happen with the Generic Drug Companies’ Lawsuit: Lessons from
   the Tobacco Settlement
The Implications of Increasing Physician Hospital Employment
More Medical Science and Less Advertising
The Need for Improved ICU Severity Scoring
A Labor Day Warning
Keep Your Politics Out of My Practice
The Highest Paid Clerk
The VA Mission Act: Funding to Fail?
What the Supreme Court Ruling on Binding Arbitration May Mean to
   Healthcare 
Kiss Up, Kick Down in Medicine 
What Does Shulkin’s Firing Mean for the VA? 
Guns, Suicide, COPD and Sleep
The Dangerous Airway: Reframing Airway Management in the Critically Ill 
Linking Performance Incentives to Ethical Practice 
Brenda Fitzgerald, Conflict of Interest and Physician Leadership 
Seven Words You Can Never Say at HHS
Equitable Peer Review and the National Practitioner Data Bank 
Fake News in Healthcare 
Beware the Obsequious Physician Executive (OPIE) but Embrace Dyad
   Leadership 
Disclosures for All 
Saving Lives or Saving Dollars: The Trump Administration Rescinds Plans to
Require Sleep Apnea Testing in Commercial Transportation Operators
The Unspoken Challenges to the Profession of Medicine
EMR Fines Test Trump Administration’s Opposition to Bureaucracy 
Breaking the Guidelines for Better Care 
Worst Places to Practice Medicine 
Pain Scales and the Opioid Crisis 
In Defense of Eminence-Based Medicine 
Screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea in the Transportation Industry—
   The Time is Now 
Mitigating the “Life-Sucking” Power of the Electronic Health Record 
Has the VA Become a White Elephant? 
The Most Influential People in Healthcare 
Remembering the 100,000 Lives Campaign 
The Evil That Men Do-An Open Letter to President Obama 
Using the EMR for Better Patient Care 
State of the VA
Kaiser Plans to Open "New" Medical School 
CMS Penalizes 758 Hospitals For Safety Incidents 
Honoring Our Nation's Veterans 
Capture Market Share, Raise Prices 
Guns and Sleep 
Is It Time for a National Tort Reform? 
Time for the VA to Clean Up Its Act 
Eliminating Mistakes In Managing Coccidioidomycosis 
A Tale of Two News Reports 
The Hands of a Healer 
The Fabulous Fours! Annual Report from the Editor 
A Veterans Day Editorial: Change at the VA? 
A Failure of Oversight at the VA 
IOM Releases Report on Graduate Medical Education 

 

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The Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care welcomes submission of editorials on journal content or issues relevant to the pulmonary, critical care or sleep medicine.

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Entries in oversight (5)

Saturday
Jan162016

State of the VA

Earlier this week, President Obama gave his last State of the Union Address. Although this usually is a speech giving the President the opportunity of flaunt his accomplishments, no mention was made of the VA (1). Given the troubles at the VA, there seems little to tout.

Over 70% of the VA medical centers were discovered to have falsified wait times (2). Because of the wait scandal, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned and VA undersecretary, Robert Petzel MD, retired under pressure. Ironically, Shinseki, a retired Army general and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was viewed in a favorable light by the current administration because of a spat with the Bush administration's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, over the number of troops needed to secure Iran and Afghanistan (3). However, during Shinseki's tenure the number of VA "medical troops", doctors and nurses, was insufficient to care for the number of veterans. It is unclear if the new secretary, Bob McDonald, has done much to correct the problem.

Locally, the director of the Phoenix VA regional office, Susan Bowers, retired under pressure and former Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman was fired (4). However, Helman was allowed to keep her bonus for the falsely reported shorter wait times and is appealing her firing. Her deputies, Lance Robinson and Brad Curry, were placed on administrative leave, but after over a year and a half have recently returned to work in the Phoenix VA regional office. Darren Deering DO, the Phoenix chief of staff, underwent a VA internal investigation because of retaliating against one of the Phoenix VA whistleblowers, Katherine Mitchell MD. Disciplinary action was recommended but no action was taken. In October 2015, the IG released a new report citing critical staffing shortages at the Phoenix VA.

Earlier this week the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved the nomination of Washington lawyer Michael Missal as the new permanent Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general (VAIG) (5). Lawmakers from both parties have sought a permanent VAIG for over 2 years. The chairman of the Senate veterans panel, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, says the top priority of the inspector general must be to "hold bad actors at the VA accountable" for chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and other problems at the agency.

If confirmed by the full Senate which is expected, Missal might be busy. Whether Isakson is serious or this is more political posturing is unclear. Rather than a few “bad actors” the wait scandal suggests that fraud, waste and abuse are common, perhaps even rampant, within the VA. Rather than being held “accountable”, the bad actors are more often protected and even rewarded by VA Central Office. Although Veterans and the public might be optimistic, it is likely that they will be disappointed by Missal, as they have by VAIGs and others charged with VA oversight in the past.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Graf N. Veterans' affairs left out of State of the Union; Phoenix VA whistleblower disappointed in speech. ABC15 Arizona. January 13, 2016. Available at: http://www.abc15.com/news/region-phoenix-metro/central-phoenix/veterans-affairs-left-out-of-state-of-the-union-phoenix-va-whistleblower-disappointed-in-speech (accessed 1/15/16).
  2. Klimas J. Huge backlog: 70 percent of VA facilities used alternative waitlists. Washington Times. June 9, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/9/audit-more-57000-await-initial-va-visits/?page=all (accessed 1/15/16).
  3. DeFrank T. How Donald Rumsfeld complicated Eric Shinseki’s last administration exit. National Journal. May 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/white-house/2014/05/31/how-donald-rumsfeld-complicated-eric-shinsekis-last-administration-exit (accessed 1/15/16).
  4. Arizona Republic. VA in crisis: the Republic investigation. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/investigations/vahealthsystem/ (accessed 1/15/16).
  5. Daly M. Senate panel backs lawyer Missal as VA watchdog. Washington Post. January 12, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/whitehouse/senate-panel-backs-lawyer-missal-as-va-watchdog/2016/01/12/d13db550-b96d-11e5-85cd-5ad59bc19432_story.html (accessed 1/15/16).

*The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or California Thoracic Socities or the Mayo Clinic.

Cite as: Robbins RA. State of the VA. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;12(1):28-9. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc008-16 PDF

Wednesday
Nov112015

Honoring Our Nation's Veterans 

Today is Armistice Day, renamed Veterans Day in 1954, to honor our Nation's Veterans. In Washington the rhetoric from both the political right and left supports our Veterans. My cynical side reminds me that this might have something to do with Veterans voting in a higher percentage than the population as a whole, but let me give the politicians this one. Serving our Country in the military is something that deserves to be honored. I was proud to serve our Veterans over 30 years at four Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

However, the VA has had a very bad year. First, in Washington there were the resignations of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki; the undersecretary for the Veterans Health Administration, Robert Petzel; and the undersecretary for the Veterans Benefits Administration, Allison Hickey. Locally, in the light of the VA wait scandal there were the firing of the Phoenix VA Medical Centers director, Sharon Helman, and her deputies along with the retirement of her boss, Susan Bowers. Furthermore, there seem to be a never-ending string of scandals ranging from the mundane of greed-driven fraud to the more exotic of accusing a VA whistleblower of engaging in sexual threesomes. Despite a healthy increase in funding, there was the threat by VA administrators of closing VA hospitals to meet a VA budget shortfall. This resulted in Congress knuckling under to allow the use of emergency funds. Veterans groups are using billboards to accuse the VA of lying (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Billboard across from the VA October 12, 2015.

I could go on and on. However, the real question is not so much of what dirty deeds are being done, but how the VA administrators get away with it.

There has been both a lack of oversight and lack of accountability. Robert McDonald, who replaced Shinseki, has promised to punish the evil doers but has replaced action with the mantra "all is well" and has done nothing. In several instances wrong-doing has apparently been rewarded, such as Bowers replacement having lied to Congress (1). If the VA cannot police itself-and it apparently cannot-there are a multitude of regulatory agencies that have shirked their oversight responsibilities. I thought it was time to mention a few.

First, there are both the Veterans Integrated Service Networks, the regional VA offices, and VA Central Office itself in Washington. Both these organizations have been caught in the scandals and have done nothing. Second, there is Congress. The House Veterans Affairs Committee has seemed to make a sincere effort to identify some of the problems but Secretary McDonald and his cadre of 11,000 in Central Office has repeatedly stone-walled any investigation and Congress has done nothing. Third, there is the White House. The Obama Administration has seemed more interested in declaring the problem fixed than actually fixing the problem and has done nothing.

Those are the obvious but there are some less obvious regulatory failures. First, there are the multiple hospital inspectors. Within the VA is the Office of Inspector General (IG) who is charged with investigating wrong-doing within the VA. Locally they had been called to Phoenix multiple times including for the wait time scandal but have done nothing. The poor performance resulted in the resignation of the acting VA IG, Richard Griffin, under pressure. Second, there is the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). The Phoenix VA Medical Center managed to go from a "top performer" in 2011 to noncompliant "with U.S. standards for safety, patient care and management" in 2014. Only the naive would believe that a hospital can transition that much in 3 years. There is also the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners and Nursing. Both doctors and nurses were involved in the cover-up of the wait scandal but these boards have done nothing. The VA is the largest system for training future physicians and nurses, and it seems that the future doctors and nurses might not be learning the highest professional and ethical standards. Nonetheless, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and American Association of Colleges of Nursing have done nothing.

However, my personal disgust is highest for the Department of Justice (DOJ). It is known that seventy percent of the hospitals were fudging their wait data. The administrators, not the doctors or nurses, received bonuses for short wait times. None of the administrators have gone to jail or even been charged with fraud. None have even had to repay their bonuses. The DOJ has done nothing. If 70% of the doctors were caught faking data to received bonuses, I have every confidence that the legal eagles at DOJ would gleefully put each and every one on trial.

So what can be done? There appears to be no oversight. This was clearly illustrated in the report from the recent Human Resources (HR) team from Central Office sent to Phoenix to help with what can be kindly described as a dysfunctional department. They were essentially shown the door by the acting director, Glen Grippen, saying that he "calls the shots" (2).

The solution is that Mr. Grippen and others of his ilk should no longer call the shots. They have shown a consistent arrogance and disregard for our Nation's Veterans and those that serve them. He and others need oversight, not by a far-off committee in Washington as President Obama has proposed which will likely fare no better than Congress. Oversight could be best provided by local physicians and nurses who have interest in Veteran care but are not employed by the VA. This used to occur in many VA hospitals and was called the Dean's Committee. The dean of the local medical school along with the chairman of the departments of medicine, surgery, pathology, radiology, and others formed a committee that oversaw care at the VA. The committee had interests in the patient care of Veterans but also in the physicians who were faculty at the local medical school and the medical students, residents and fellows who were under their supervision. This committee was a victim of Ken Kizer's "prescription for change" in the 1990s. Now, this old system might be an antidote for Kizer's prescription which has seemed to turn poison.

The VA is pushing to hire more personnel to deal with wait times and lack of patient care. However, it is unclear how many of the new hires are doctors and nurses contributing to patient care and how many are administrators and bureaucrats.  My experiences and conversations with my colleagues convinces me that not all hospitals are as badly managed as those in the Southwest. Those considering a career at the VA need to carefully investigate each hospital to see if it is the type of place that the leadership will provide the resources to care for the Veterans, which is after all, the definition of leadership.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Wagner D. Department of Veterans Affairs names new regional health director. Arizona Republic. October 15, 2015. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2015/10/15/department-veterans-affairs-names-new-regional-health-director/73900478/
  2. Wagner D. VA team blasts Phoenix personnel office. Arizona Republic. November 2, 2015. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2015/11/02/va-team-blasts-phoenix-personnel-office/74763366/

Cite as: Robbins RA. Honoring our Nation's Veterans. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;11(5):228-30. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc141-15 PDF

Thursday
Sep112014

A Failure of Oversight at the VA 

On September 8, 2014 the Washington Examiner reported that the Central Office of the VA was allowed to change language in the VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) report on delays in patient care at the Phoenix VA Medical Center (1). Crucial language that the VAOIG could not “conclusively” prove that delays in care caused patient deaths at a Phoenix hospital was added to its final report after a draft version was sent to agency administrators for comment. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House veterans' committee, said "there are significant differences between the final IG report and the draft version ...". The following day Richard Griffin, the acting VAOIG, vigorously defended the independence of his office and bristled at the allegations that the VA was allowed to alter his office's report. However, his denials and indignance seem disingenuous.

To understand why, we need to go back a few years. First, the Phoenix VA overspent its Fee Basis consult budget in 2010. This is the money budgeted to send patients outside the VA for care. To do this a request was filled out and reviewed. Although the Chief of Staff often reviews these requests, this responsibility was delegated to the associate chief of staff for ambulatory care, Keith Piatt. He nearly always approved these requests. Dr. Piatt had other duties including patient care and limited expertise in several of the areas he was requested to evaluate. Furthermore, poor accounting made if unclear if there was sufficient money to pay for these consults. However, rather than questioning why so many patients were outsourced, the VAOIG blamed the problem on the inadequacy of Dr. Piatt's reviews (2). Given this recent IG investigation, it is not surprising that the Phoenix VA administrators were reluctant to outsource patients.

Second, Sam Foote, the initial whistleblower at the Phoenix VA contacted VAOIG in October, 2013. However, according to Foote the VAOIG did not seem to take his allegations seriously, and did what appears to be a superficial investigation (1). So Foote went to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs this past February. Only after the scandal was made public did the VAOIG acknowledge the inadequate care at the Phoenix VA.

Third, the VA prematurely made press releases prior to the release of the VAOIG's final report attempting to exonerate their responsibility (1,3). The final VAOIG report, apparently altered by the VA, was "unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans.” Although this would hardly seem to be an exoneration, media outlets widely reported that whistle-blower allegations were exaggerated and that veterans were not severely affected by wrongdoing at the Phoenix VA medical center. However, in several instances it would seem likely that delayed care contributed to premature patient deaths and would was questioned in a Senate hearing on September 10, 2014 (3).

Fourth, VAOIG investigators corroborated virtually every major allegation of wrongdoing submitted by the first whistle-blower, Dr. Sam Foote (3). Nevertheless, the report and congressional briefing papers contain passages that appear to criticize Foote and his credibility, emphasizing that "the whistle-blower did not provide us with a list of 40 patient names" referring to VA patients Foote said died while awaiting care in Phoenix. This passage was apparently added by VA Central Office. Foote said the portion of the report about him is "false and misleading" because he and other whistle-blowers provided 24 names to inspectors and explained where to identify16 more. The VA report acknowledged that Foote had supplied at least 17 names and that others could not be traced because documentation had been destroyed by VA employees. Rather than defending their indefensible actions, VA Central Office has apparently resorted to denial, indignance, and blaming the whistleblower.

Fifth, the VA continues to obfuscate and obstruct investigations. According to the VAOIG, managers at 13 VA facilities lied to investigators about scheduling problems and other issues and officials at 42 of the 93 sites engaged in manipulation of scheduling, including 19 sites where appointments were cancelled and then rescheduled for the same day to meet on-time performance goals (4). However, it remains unclear whether officials at the Phoenix and Cheyenne VAs have been fired or even suspended. Citing privacy issues, the VA has refused to comment. However, in 2011, Jack Bagdade, a Phoenix VA physician, was fired for violation of the Hatch Act (5). His firing was widely publicized locally. Bagdade was lobbying Senator John McCain for a new research building at the Phoenix VA. Bagdade forwarded an e-mail from McCain's office entitled "Drink Beer for John McCain". If Bagdade's termination for forwarding an e-mail was appropriate punishment (and I am certainly not saying that it was), then what is appropriate punishment for VA administrators who knowingly manipulated patient appointments for their own personal gain, altered records and then lied to investigators?

Several of the VA administrators involved are also licensed physicians and nurses. However, both the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners and Arizona Board of Nursing have been strangely silent. Altering medical records and then lying about it would seem to be a clear violation of the Arizona statues.

Congress also has to accept some responsibility for their lack of oversight. The problem of inadequate numbers of physicians has been known for years (6). Recently appointed VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, pointed out that the Phoenix VA has now hired 53 additional full-time employees in recent months to help alleviate the appointment backlog (4). He did not mention how many of these employees are physicians nor did he mention how many of the patients were outsourced. However, it seems likely that the hires were merely new administrative personnel to outsource the care of patients. One senior VA official who asked not to be identified said that morale at the VA is poor and doubted that the VA will be able to fill the multiple physician vacancies commenting "Who would want to work here?".

Congress passing a bill to make it easier to fire senior VA administrators suggests they realize there is a problem. However, the legislation still leaves the control of the money up to the very people who misspent it bringing about the present crises. It is also unclear who will do the firing. To date no administrators have been fired despite the law supposedly making this easier. It seems unlikely that any VA administrators are going to fire their colleagues for doing what they are probably also doing or know about. "One of the chief lessons of the VA scandal is that we cannot rely on VA, alone, to effectively identify and correct problems plaguing the department," said Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the house veterans' committee. "Oversight and feedback from outside stakeholders is crucial to ensuring VA delivers the benefits and services our veterans have earned." (7). I agree. However, it is doubtful based on their lack of action that either the VAOIG or VA Central Office will take any substantive action to hold those accountable for this scandal and its cover-up.  A reasonable solution is to establish a system for local oversight by physicians, nurses and patients (8). Rep. Miller is right, we cannot rely on the VA to fix this problem and oversight is crucial.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

References

  1. Taupin M. IG let veterans affairs officials alter report to absolve agency in phoenix deaths. Washington Examiner. September 8, 2014. Available at: http://washingtonexaminer.com/ig-let-veterans-affairs-officials-alter-report-to-absolve-agency-in-deaths/article/2553035 (accessed 9/10/14).
  2. VA Office of Inspector General. Review of Alleged Mismanagement of Non-VA Fee Care Funds at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. November 8, 2011. Available at: http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-11-02280-23.pdf (accessed 9/10/14).
  3. Wagner D. Critics: VA influenced Inspector General to change Phoenix report for spin-control. Arizona Republic. September 10, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/investigations/2014/09/10/report-phoenix-va-deaths-raises-questions/15375005/ (accessed 9/10/14).
  4. Daly M. Watchdog: VA managers lied to investigators about delays. Associated Press. September 9, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/nation/politics/2014/09/09/watchdog-va-managers-lied-delays/15334159/ (accessed 9/10/14).
  5. Kujz S. Valley doctor loses job over invitation to have beer with Arizona senator. ABC News. March 25, 2011. Available at: http://www.abc15.com/news/region-phoenix-metro/central-phoenix/valley-doctor-loses-job-over-invitation-to-have-beer-with-arizona-senator (accessed 9/10/14).
  6. Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54. Available at: http://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2012/5/5/va-administrators-gaming-the-system.html (accessed 9/10/14).
  7. Jordan B. Congressman takes va oversight on the road. Military.com news. August 12, 2014. Available at: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/08/12/congressman-takes-va-oversight-on-the-road.html (accessed 9/10/14).
  8. Robbins RA. VA administrators breathe a sigh of relief. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(6):336-9. [CrossRef] 

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Reference as: Robbins RA. A failure of oversight at the VA. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(3):179-82. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc119-14 PDF

Sunday
Jun082014

VA Administrators Breathe a Sigh of Relief 

On May 30, Eric Shinseki, the Secretary for Veterans Affairs (VA), resigned under pressure amidst a growing scandal regarding falsification of patient wait times at nearly 40 VA medical centers. Before leaving office Shinseki fired Sharon Helman, the former hospital director at the Phoenix VA, where the story first broke, along with her deputy and another unnamed administrator. In addition, Susan Bowers, director of VA Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 18 and Helman’s boss, resigned. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA, head of the VA hospitals and clinics), had resigned earlier. You could hear the sigh of relief from the VA administrators.

With their bosses resigning left and right, the VA leadership in shambles and the reputation of the VA  soiled for many years to come, why are the VA administrators relieved? The simple answer is that nothing has really changed. There for a moment it looked like real reform might happen. Even President Obama in announcing Shinseki's resignation said the "There is a need for a change in culture..." (1). Shinseki’s resignation would indicate that any action to change the culture is unlikely. Sure a few administrators, like Helman, will lose their jobs, perhaps a few patients will get outsourced to private practioners, but nothing is being done or proposed to change the VA culture. A new interim VA secretary was named and his tenure is likely to be lengthy since no confirmation appears to go unchallenged in the US Congress, and who would want the job?

I was at the VA, when then undersecretary for VHA, Kenneth Kizer, made the fundamental change that resulted in the present mess. Kizer had come to the VA with a program he called the “prescription for change” (2). Indeed, Kizer made several changes but the one that really counted was that the chiefs of staff, doctors who ran the medical services in VA hospitals, were replaced by the head of the Medical Administration Service, usually a business person. This made the VA director the monarch over their own little kingdom, and we all know “it’s good to be the king”. Furthermore, we all know that power corrupts and now with absolute power, the VA director was absolutely corrupted. The hospital directors eliminated any sources of potential opposition. Physicians who did not “play ball” could suddenly find themselves as a target of an investigation (3). After being found guilty by a kangaroo court, their names would be turned over to the National Practioner Databank as bad doctors making it difficult to find a job outside the VA. Those cooperative physicians were rewarded, often for limiting the care of patients. In other words, putting the VA administrators’ interests before the patients’ (4). Lastly, the long-standing relationship with the Nation’s medical schools was destroyed (remember VA dean’s hospitals?). It was argued that the medical schools used the VA to serve their needs. Although this had some truth, it is part of the two-way street that makes cooperation possible. No VA administrator wanted a bunch of doctors and academics telling them what to do.

After eliminating any possible oversight from the physicians or the medical schools, an insulating administrative layer had to be placed between the hospitals and VA central office. Therefore, the Veterans Integrated Service Networks or VISNs, were created. Although ostensibly to improve oversight and efficiency (2), only in Washington would they believe that another layer of bureaucracy would do either. As more and more patients were packed into the system, the numbers of physicians and nurses decreased (5). Not surprisingly, wait times became longer and there was no alternative but to hide the truth. The administrators, the VISNs and VA Central office were all complicit in these lies. Their bonuses depended on it and even when it was discovered by the VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) nothing was done.

Congress, who supposedly also provides oversight, was swift to propose action that does not change the VA culture and accomplish little. In this election year Congressional cries to throw those VA bums out have been consistent and loud. However, plenty of clues were available to know that the wait time data was false. First, the concept that you can cut the numbers of physicians and nurses and improve wait times defies common sense. Second, the VAOIG had repeatedly reported that wait times were being falsified. Helman had already been accused of this when she was the director at the Spokane VA (6). This week the Senate passed a bill allowing veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility; make it easier to fire VA officials; construct 26 new VA medical facilities and use $500 million in unobligated VA funds to hire additional VA doctors and nurses (7). The VA already is able to do the first two, and as the present crisis illustrates, funds can be diverted away from healthcare. It seems likely this is exactly what will happen unless additional oversight is provided.

Kizer and Ashish Jha authored an editorial on this crisis in the New England Journal of Medicine this week (8). They made three recommendations:

  1. The VA should refocus on fewer measures that directly address what is most important to veteran patients and clinicians-especially outcome measures.
  2. Some of the resources supporting the central and network office bureaucracies could be redirected to bolster the number of caregivers.
  3. The VA needs to engage more with health care organizations and the general public.

All these recommendations are reasonable. Outcome measures, not process of care, should be measured (9). Paying bonuses to administrators for clinicians completing these process of care measures should stop. Many of these measures serve mostly to increase administrative bonuses and not improve patient care. By giving administrators supervisory authority over physicians, healthcare providers were forced to complete a seemingly endless checklists rather than serve the patients' interests.

Bureaucracies should be reduced. VA's central-office staff has grown from about 800 in the late 1990s to nearly 11,000 in 2012 (8). VISN offices have reflected this growth with over 4500 employees in 2012 (10). This diversion of funds away from healthcare is the source of the present problem.

The VA needs to re-engage with the medical schools and with its patients. Reestablishment of the Dean's Committee or other similar system that provides oversight of the VA hospital directors and administrators may be one method of achieving this oversight. The association of the medical schools with the VA served the VA well from the Second World War until the 1990s (11).

Poor pay and micromanagement of physicians to perform meaningless metrics makes primary care onerous. Appropriating funds might improve the salary discrepancy between the VA and the private sector but will not fix the micromanagement problem. The VA may find it difficult to recruit the needed physicians and nurses unless a more friendly work environment is created. How do we know that any appropriated money will be spent on healthcare providers and infrastructure unless additional oversight is put in place? Without oversight the VA positions will become VA vacancies and the VA hospitals will become administrative palaces. Local oversight by VA physicians, nurses and patients is one method of ensuring that appropriated monies are actually spent on healthcare.

VA health care is at a crossroads. New leadership can help the VA succeed but only if the administrative structure is fixed changing the VA culture. Until this occurs the same administrative monarchs will continue to rule their realms and nothing will really change.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Cohen T, Griffin D, Bronstein S, Black N. Shinseki resigns, but will that improve things at VA hospitals? CNN. May 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/30/politics/va-hospitals-shinseki/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  2. Kizer KW. Prescription for change. March 1996. Available at: http://www.va.gov/HEALTHPOLICYPLANNING/rxweb.pdf (accessed 6/7/14). 
  3. Wagner D. The doctor who launched the VA scandal. Arizona Republic. May 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/longform/news/arizona/investigations/2014/05/31/va-scandal-whistleblower-sam-foote/9830057/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  4. Hsieh P. Three factors that corrupted VA health care and threaten the rest of American medicine. Forbes. May 30, 2014. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulhsieh/2014/05/30/three-factors-that-corrupted-va-health-care/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  5. Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54. Available at: http://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2012/5/5/va-administrators-gaming-the-system.html (accessed 6/7/14).
  6. Robbins RA. VA scandal widens. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):288-9. Available at: http://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2014/5/26/va-scandal-widens.html (accessed 6/7/14). 
  7. O'Keefe E. Senators reach bipartisan deal on bill to fix VA. Washington Post. June 5, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/06/05/senators-reach-bipartisan-deal-on-bill-to-fix-va/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  8. Kizer KW, Jha AK. Restoring trust in VA health care. N Engl J Med. 2014 Jun 4. [Epub ahead of print]. Available at: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1406852 (accessed 6/7/14). [CrossRef]
  9. Robbins RA, Klotz SA. Quality of care in U.S. hospitals. N Engl J Med. 2005;353(17):1860-1. [CrossRef]
  10. VA Office of Inspector General. Audit of management control structures for veterans integrated service network offices. March 27, 2012. Available at: http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-10-02888-129.pdf (accessed 6/7/14).
  11. VA policy memorandum no. 2: policy in association of veterans' hospitals with medical schools. January 30, 1946. Available at: http://www.va.gov/oaa/Archive/PolicyMemo2.pdf (accessed 6/7/14).

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Refence as: Robbins RA. VA administrators breathe a sigh of relief. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(6):336-9. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc077-14 PDF

Sunday
May042014

Don’t Fire Sharon Helman-At Least Not Yet 

Several developments have occurred over the past few days regarding prolonged wait times and secret lists at the Phoenix VA and its embattled director, Sharon Helman. President Obama has asked for an investigation and several Arizona Senators and Representatives have called for investigations and/or asked for the resignation of Helman and her administrative team (1,2). On 4/30/14, Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health, testified that an administrative team visited Phoenix soon after the controversy erupted and found “no evidence of a secret list… [or] patients who have died because they [were] on a wait list." (3). On 5/1/14 CNN posted an interview with Sharon Helman and her Chief of Staff, Dr. Darren Deering, who denied the allegations. Dr. Sam Foote, who made the original allegations, accused Helman and Deering of lying (4). CNN apparently confirmed Foote’s story with several sources inside the VA including a second physician, Dr. Katherine Mitchell (5). Later the same day, Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, suspended Helman and two others (5).

This all sounded very familiar (6). In 2012 the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the accuracy of the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) wait times for mental health services (7). The report found that “VHA does not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether they are providing patients timely access to mental health care services. VHA did not provide first-time patients with timely mental health evaluations and existing patients often waited more than 14 days past their desired date of care for their treatment appointment. As a result, performance measures used to report patient’s access to mental health care do not depict the true picture of a patient’s waiting time to see a mental health provider.”

After the 2012 OIG report came the inevitable Congressional hearing (8). Although misrepresenting actual wait times has been known for many years, there has been inadequate action to correct the practice according to the VA OIG. Sen. Patty Murray, then chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the findings showed a "rampant gaming of the system." (8). A review of the OIG’s website revealed multiple instances of similar findings dating back to at least 2002 (6). In each instance, unreliable data regarding wait times was cited and no or inadequate action was taken.

The providers at the VA should not necessarily view this as not good news. The VA has usually sought to refocus blame away from the administrators to “lazy” or “poor” doctors. My guess is that we will soon see a number of accusations about Drs. Foote and Mitchell in an effort to administratively circle the wagons. VA administrators usually seize on such opportunities to control physicians. Remember the computer fiasco from several years back when an information technology administrator lost a computer with confidential patient information (9)? This not only resulted in information technology being placed in charge of the electronic healthcare record but a number of restrictions were placed on physician use of data. Furthermore, administrators can now not only regulate a physician’s salary but “black ball” physicians by false accusations through sources such as the National Practioner Data Bank (NPDB). Not surprisingly, physicians are reluctant to speak out when their livelihood can be threatened.

Clearly, the present system is not working. Firing Sharon Helman will solve nothing at the present other than giving some politicians the opportunity to congratulate themselves on weeding out a bad apple in this election year. Furthermore, firing Helman could be an attempt to hide a systemic problem by offering Helman as the “fall guy”. So instead of redoing the OIG investigations and the Congressional hearings which have accomplished nothing in the past, how about doing something else? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Have Helman investigated by an independent source, not the OIG. Examine other VAs for similarly misrepresenting patient wait times. Over thirty years at the VA taught me that if wait times are being "gamed" by one VA, the times are also likely being "gamed" by others.
  2. Create a National Healthcare Administrator Data Bank similar to the NPDB with all the same safeguards and checks and balances available to physicians. Helman apparently had a history of misrepresenting data (10). It seems unlikely that she would have been hired if this was publically known.
  3. Provide adequate oversight. The local Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN), VA Central Office in Washington, and Congress is not providing the oversight needed. Create a hospital board of directors consisting predominately of a majority of healthcare providers from the facility and Veterans (not to be appointed by the director) to provide oversight.
  4. Quit hiring more administrators while reducing the number of doctors. Inadequate numbers of providers is the root cause of prolonged wait times and has been present for a number of years (6). The numbers of administrators, nurses and doctors should be transparent and publically available.
  5. Quit paying administrators bonuses for work done by doctors. This only encourages cheating on reports (6,7). If administrators need a bonus, reward them for achievements in administrative efficiency or similar administrative goals. Both the criteria for and the amount of the bonus should be transparent and publically available.
  6. Scrap the VISN system. These local collections of administrators are another source of waste and appear to add no real oversight or patient benefit.

The optimist in me hopes the situation at the Phoenix VA and possibly other VAs is thoroughly investigated. If Helman is the “bad apple” many would like to portray-then fire her. If her actions are more a result of a systemic problem-then fix the problem.  However, the cynic in me fears that Helman will be sacrificed without a thorough investigation and no change will occur.  In that case I will again be writing about an investigation of VA administrators "gaming the system", probably in 2016.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Wagner D. McCain, Flake call for Senate probe of Phoenix VA. The Arizona Republic. April 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2014/04/23/mccain-flake-call-senate-probe-phoenix-va/8061141/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  2. Harris C, Wagner D. Phoenix VA officials deny there's a secret wait list; doctor says they're lying. The Arizona Republic. April 29, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/29/phoenix-va-director-congressman-call-for-removal/8447131/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  3. Wagner D. VA: We found no evidence to support allegations in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic. April 30, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/30/phoenix-veteran-hospital-deaths-investigation/8518721/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  4. Bronstein S, Griffin D, Black N. Phoenix VA officials deny there's a secret wait list; doctor says they're lying. CNN. May 1, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/30/health/veterans-dying-health-care-delays/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  5. Wagner D. Second VA doctor blows whistle on patient-care failures. The Arizona Republic. May 1, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/investigations/2014/05/02/second-va-doctor-blows-whistle-patient-care-failures/8595863/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  6. Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54.
  7. VA Office of Inspector General. Review of Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care. 1.http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-12-00900-168.pdf  (accessed 5-1-14).
  8. Vogel S. VA mental health system sharply denounced at hearing. Washington Post. April 25, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/va-mental-health-system-sharply-denounced-at-hearing/2012/04/25/gIQAXG3mhT_story.html (accessed 5/1/14).
  9. Lee C, Goldfarb ZA. Stolen VA laptop and hard drive recovered. Washington Post. June 30, 2006. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/29/AR2006062900352.html (accessed 5/1/14).
  10. Corbin C. Arizona VA boss accused of covering up veterans' deaths linked to previous scandal. Foxnews.com. April 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/04/24/arizona-va-boss-accused-covering-up-veterans-deaths-linked-to-previous-scandal/ (accessed 5/1/14).

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Reference as: Robbins RA. Don't fire Sharon Helman-at least not yet. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):275-7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc060-14 PDF