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Editorials

Last 50 Editorials

(Click on title to be directed to posting, most recent listed first)

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 

 

For complete editorial listings click here.

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 Phoenix VA (5)

Sunday
Sep042016

The Most Influential People in Healthcare 

Recently Modern Healthcare released their annual 2016 listing of the most influential people in Healthcare (1). Leading the list is President Barack Obama for his Affordable Care Act. The list consists of a monotonous list of bureaucrats, politicians, large healthcare chain CEOs, insurance company CEOs, health interest organizations (American Hospital Association, America's Health Insurance Plans Healthcare, etc.), professional organizations (American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, etc.), nongovernmental healthcare interest organizations (Joint Commission,  National Quality Forum, etc.) and vendors (Epic, McKesson, etc.). From the Southwest the list includes at least 11 hospital chain CEOs including 1 from Arizona, 3 from Colorado and 7 from California.

Striking is the lack of influential healthcare professionals who made the list. Only two are leading academicians-Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author at Harvard, and Robert Wachter, an internist and pioneer in the hosptialist movement at University of California San Francisco. John Noseworthy (Mayo Clinic) and Ronald DePinho (MD Anderson) were noteworthy academicians prior to becoming hospital CEOs. Underrepresented are deans at major medical colleges (e.g., Talmadge King, Skip Garcia), influential researchers and clinicians (e.g., Marvin Schwarz, Stuart Quan), influential training organizations (e.g., American College of Graduate Medical Education, American Board of Internal Medicine), and even editors of prominent medical journals (e.g., Jeff Drazen at the New England Journal, Howard Bauchner at JAMA).

Every year I am offended by the domination of this list by bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen and the lack of true healthcare professionals. However, the list reflects the reality that political and business interests direct medicine. Everything from my interaction with a patient, documentation through in an electronic healthcare record, and diagnostic testing and prescribing based on the which tests and drugs are least expensive for a particular insurance plan are influenced by these non-medical interests. Unfortunately, what is lost is the interests of the patient and the role of doctors and nurses as patient advocates.

Medicine has too often become a series of meaningless metrics leading to expensive but poorer care because of these political and business interests. Furthermore, the practice of medicine is becoming increasingly unpleasant and unrewarding for the doctors and nurses. The domination of these non-medical interests has led to an explosion in non-professional administrators who consume 40% of the healthcare dollar and to a large extent annoy providers leading to their dissatisfaction with their professions (2). For example, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson, recently touted improvements made by the Phoenix VA (3). According to Gibson the Phoenix VA had a net increase of 758 employees in the past 2 years with an additional 23 doctors and 48 nurses. That calculates out to 91% of their hires being something other than physicians and nurses. It is unclear what these people do but hopefully something more than demand that providers fill out forms which they shuffle leading to ever larger administrative bonuses. Otherwise, those new hires will quickly leave and the shortage of providers that created the VA scandal in the first place will not improve. Incidentally, Gibson's boss, Robert McDonald was number 36 on the list.

What can we do? Unfortunately, there would appear to be no quick fixes. Most of us are just trying to get by caring for our patients and doing the best we can. It will take education of the public to what is going on and how their healthcare dollar is spent. Ultimately, it will be patients that can demand the changes that are needed. Although the solutions may be difficult, one way we might be able to detect improvement is when fewer bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen make Modern Healthcare's most influential list.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Modern Healthcare. 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare 2016. Available at: http://www.modernhealthcare.com/community/100-most-influential/2016/ (accessed 9/3/16).
  2. Robbins RA. National health expenditures: the past, present, future and solutions. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;11(4):176-85. [CrossRef]
  3. Wagner D. Top VA brass says Phoenix hospital is off critical list, cites improvements. Arizona Republic. September 1, 2016. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2016/09/01/va-deputy-secretary-touts-phoenix-hospital-improvements/89666526/ (accessed 9/3/16).

*The opinions 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.

Cite as: Robbins RA. The most influential people in healthcare. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(3):123-4. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc089-16 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

Monday
Nov102014

A Veterans Day Editorial: Change at the VA? 

"Meet the new boss,

Same as the old boss.

Won't Get Fooled Again!"

            -Peter Townshend

Today we honor our veterans. A year ago VA patients languished on waiting lists waiting for healthcare. VA administrators hid the truth at over 100 VAs and took bonuses for meeting their wait time goals. Money has been poured into the VA, patients in rural areas are seen outside the VA, and it is now supposedly easier to fire other senior VA officials. Dennis Wagner authored an article in the Arizona Republic that claimed the VA has made some changes but more changes are needed (1). I agree with the need for change but would argue that there has been no real change at the VA.

Last week I saw a VA patient in my private practice. He was paying for tiotropium or Spiriva®, a long-acting anticholinergic used in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, out of his pocket. He was under the impression that the VA did not "carry" tiotropium. I told him that this was not true and that he should go to the VA and ask to be seen in pulmonary clinic if his primary care physician could not prescribe tiotropium. He was sent to the pharmacy where the pharmacist wanted to know why I would prescribe this expensive drug. He was sent back to my office for a response. I xeroxed a copy of my notes and gave them to the patient. I do not know whether he got the tiotropium but my guess is that probably not without some hassle. This is unchanged from prior to the scandal when patient care was undermined by healthcare support staff. No real change there.

Last night, the new Secretary of the VA, Robert McDonald, was on "60 Minutes" (2). He announced that he is "reorganizing" the VA. Although details were not stated, this sounded mostly like a consolidation of websites, not a bad thing, but hardly a "reorganization". He also said how sorry he was for past mistakes and how the new VA was going to do better. I had déjà vu going back to the mid 90's with Ken Kaiser's "Prescription for Change" (3). Eric Shinseki, the VA secretary recently forced to resign, used similar rhetoric and was "mad as hell" at the falsified wait lists (4). No real change there.

McDonald used the term "customers" to refer to VA patients (2). This has occurred off and on since the mid 90's and is a term some healthcare providers find offensive. We do not flip burgers at McDonald's and find it inappropriate and offensive to equate healthcare professionals with businessmen selling Charmin, Luvs, Pampers, Gillette razors, Covergirl makeup, etc. No real change there.

Earlier this week, the VA named a new director at the Phoenix VA, ground zero of the VA scandal (5). He is the former director of the Milwaukee VA and director of the VA's Rocky Mountain regional network, apparently coaxed out of retirement to serve for about a year as director at the troubled medical center. He replaces two directors who served a matter of months. While director at the Rocky Mountain VA region he named Cynthia McCormack, former chief of nursing at the Phoenix VA, as director of the Cheyenne VA (6). Cheyenne was second only to Phoenix in having the widespread falsification of wait times discovered. Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA director sits at home suspended while collecting a paycheck but McCormack appears to continue to direct the Cheyenne VA. No real change there.

Although a handful of administrators have been fired by the VA, the data falsification was rampant, with most VAs apparently falsifying their records (2). Yet these administrators retain their jobs and continue to rule their healthcare empires. McDonald claimed that names had been turned over to the Department of Justice (DOJ), but the DOJ declined to prosecute, and that administrative law judges were blocking the firing of administrators (2). No real change there.

The VA still functions with a lack of oversight. Congressmen make statements and issue press releases when politically convenient. The VA office of inspector general (VAOIG) still does investigations in response to whistle-blowers. After turning over their findings to VA central office to water down, the VAOIG usually makes some recommendations that are quickly accepted but not acted on by the VA (7). No real change there.

Lastly, there is the popular media. For years we heard about Ken Kizer's "Prescription for Change" and the miracle of the transformation to the VA (3,8). This infuriated many of us who knew it was not true (9). We wondered why the press was so accepting of the claims. They certainly are not on other political issues. However, in this case Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic, CNN and several other news sources stayed with the story and ferreted out the truth. Real change there. Hopefully, news media with continue their investigative reporting and question VA officials when they put forth self-serving data that is difficult to believe. This is my hope and may be the only result of the VA scandal that will force change. Hopefully the media "won't get fooled again".

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Wagner D. Much change in wake of VA scandal; more needed. Arizona Republic. November 8, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2014/11/08/phoenix-va-scandal-changes/18716281/.
  2. 60 Minutes. Robert McDonald: cleaning up the VA. Aired November 9, 2014. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/robert-mcdonald-cleaning-up-the-veterans-affairs-hospitals/.
  3. Kizer KW. Prescription for change. March 22, 1995. Available at: http://www.va.gov/HEALTHPOLICYPLANNING/rxweb.pdf
  4. Cohen T, Frates C. Shinseki 'mad as hell' about VA allegations, but won't resign. CNN. May 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/15/politics/va-scandal-eric-shinseki-preview/.
  5. Wagner D. VA names new director for Phoenix medical center. Arizona Republic. November 4, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/11/04/phoenix-veterans-affairs-medical-center-interim-director-brk/18467665/.
  6. Cheyenne VA Medical Center. Leadership team: Cynthia McCormack. Available at: http://www.cheyenne.va.gov/about/leadership.asp.
  7. Robbins RA. A failure of oversight at the VA. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(3):179-82. [CrossRef]
  8. Jha AK, Perlin JB, Kizer KW, Dudley RA. Effect of the transformation of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System on the quality of care. N Engl J Med. 2003;348(22):2218-27. [CrossRef] [Pubmed]
  9. Robbins RA, Klotz SA. Quality of care in U.S. hospitals. N Engl J Med. 2005;353(17):1860-1. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 

Reference as: Robbins RA. A veterans day editorial: change at the VA? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(5):281-3. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc150-14 PDF

Monday
May262014

VA Scandal Widens

On Memorial Day, which honors those who died in service to the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is investigating medical facilities in at least 26 cities (1). The scandal started in Phoenix where Sam Foote, a retired VA physician, alleged that up to 40 patients in Arizona died awaiting care in a network where some veterans could not get appointments for more than a year. Foote claimed that Phoenix VA officials were misrepresenting wait times to collect bonus checks while maintaining "secret lists" of patients. These accusations resulted in the suspension of Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA hospital director, along with her associate director and another unnamed senior administrator. Dennis Wagner in an article in the Arizona Republic listed many of the accusations made against various VA hospitals outside of Phoenix (1). These include:

  • Chicago: Germaine Clarno, president of a federal employee union, said secret lists and falsified wait times had been an "everyday practice" at the Hines VA Hospital, and complaints of data fraud were ignored. Hellman was previously at the Hines VA director prior to coming to Phoenix. Clarno also said the inspector general conducted an inquiry, but targeted tangential issues. "The problem is the government covers up for the government — the OIG is a bed partner of VA administration." The OIG had investigated the Phoenix VA in late 2013 but Robert Petzel, then undersecretary for Veterans Healthcare Administration, said the OIG found no evidence to support Foote's claims (2). Petzel later resigned and the White House has nominated Jeffrey Murawsky who previously served as director of VA Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 12 which oversees the Hines VA and who directly supervised Helman (3).
  • Walla Walla, WA: VA auditors who visited the Walla Walls VA, where Helman previously served as director prior to coming to Hines VA, identified improper and inconsistent patient-scheduling practices, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. A psychiatric nurse, who won a whistle-blower settlement after being terminated, told NBC News that intimidation and retaliation were commonplace at the medical center.
  • San Antonio, Texas: Dr. Joseph Spann, who retired in January after 17 years with the VA, told federal investigators that physicians were regularly asked to alter the "request date" for medical procedures to hide backlogs for tests. Spann attributed the practice to pressure to meet performance measures that reward administrators bonuses. When told local VA officials had conducted a review and denied the allegation, Spann said, "Central Texas (VA) investigating itself is just worthless." Raymond Chung who was the previous Chief of Staff at the Phoenix VA came to Phoenix from San Antonio.
  • Cheyenne, WY: Congressional investigators uncovered an e-mail written by a nurse to other VA employees describing techniques for "gaming the system" by falsifying appointment records to meet goals set by bosses. The nurse was suspended after the e-mail was made public. The director of the Cheyenne VA is Cynthia McCormack who previously was chief of nursing at the Phoenix VA.
  • Fort Collins, CO: OIG investigators in December found that medical clinic staffers were trained to make it appear veterans were getting appointments within 14 days, per department guidelines, even though waits were longer. McCormack supervises the Fort Collins clinic.
  • Albuquerque: U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called for an investigation after allegations that  wait-time records were falsified Phoenix. Phoenix and Albuquerque are both supervised by Susan Bowers, the VISN 18 director.

As the above illustrates, the connections between these administrators is striking. Beginning several years ago, according to internal VA records, VA central office in Washington realized medical centers around the country were finding ways to manipulate the numbers. The VA had for several years been the subject of congressional inquiry and criticism not just due to long waits for care, but because of mismanagement but no action was taken.

Although Congress, VA central office in Washington and the local VISNs are all charged with overseeing the VA hospitals, the task of supervising this large, complex bureaucracy is daunting and appears to have been inadequate. A system needs to be put in place where healthcare providers who care for veterans and veteran patients who use the facility have a role in the oversight of their local VA hospital.  Creation of a hospital board of directors consisting predominately of healthcare providers from the facility and veterans might be able to provide the supervision that this ever widening scandal suggests is needed.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Wagner D. Delayed care, fraud point to ailing VA health system. The Arizona Republic. May 25, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/investigations/2014/05/25/va-medical-care-woes/9564605/ (accessed 5/26/14).
  2. 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 5/26/14).
  3. O'Dell R, Nowicki D, The Arizona Republic. May 16, 2014. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/16/top-va-health-official-resigns-under-fire/9182311/ (accessed 5/26/14).

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

Reference as: Robbins RA. VA scandal widens. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):288-9. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc070-14 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).
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*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