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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 Robert McDonald (5)

Friday
Nov112016

Has the VA Become a White Elephant? 

As I write this Dennis Wagner is publishing a series of articles in the Arizona Republic describing his quest to find out if care at VA hospitals has improved over the last 2 years (1). To begin the article Wagner describes the fable of the King of Siam who presented albino pachyderms to his enemies knowing they would be bankrupted because the cost of food and care outweighed all usefulness. A modern expression derives from this parable: the white elephant.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has prided itself on being a leader in healthcare. It is the largest healthcare system in the US, implemented the first electronic medical record, and more than 70 percent of all US doctors have received training in the VA healthcare system (2). This year the VA is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its partnership with US medical schools. Beginning in 1946, the VA partnered with academic institutions to provide health care and to train physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. “We are extremely proud of the long-standing, close relationships built over the past 70 years among VA and academic institutions across the country” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “These partnerships strengthen VA’s healthcare system, and provide high quality training for the nation’s healthcare workforce. We cannot do what we do without them.” On this Veterans Day these appear to be empty words.

To understand the VA wait list scandal and why it will be difficult to fix, it is important to understand the history of the VA academic affiliations. The VA initially affiliated with medical schools in 1946 because it had trouble attracting enough quality physicians to staff its hospitals. These affiliations led to the formation of "dean's hospitals" (3). These were VA hospitals closely affiliated with medical schools and made the VA hospitals teaching hospitals. The medical school faculty was in charge of patient care and teaching and the dean's committee oversaw it all. Not surprisingly, these dean's committees were largely despised by the non-physician directors of the VA business offices. In the mid-1990's they persuaded Veterans Health Administration undersecretary, Kenneth W. Kizer, to place them in charge of the VA hospitals as hospital directors. The dean's committees were dissolved, freeing the directors from any real local oversight. This set the foundation for the VA to return to 1945 and a culture that makes it difficult to attract sufficient numbers of quality physicians.

The inability to attract physicians is largely responsible for the widely publicized VA wait time crisis. Although the VA blames their inability to recruit on pay below what the private sector pays, this is only part of the story. VA administrators have repeatedly attempted to direct patient care leading to physician job dissatisfaction and poor morale. Rather than quality healthcare, the VA developed a list of largely meaningless metrics that substituted for quality. These so called "performance-measurements" were favored by VA administration in no small part because of the bonuses they generated for the administrators. This created a cycle of increasing numbers of measurements to generate increasing bonuses. Physicians were often pressured to remind patients to wear seat belts, not keep guns in the home, etc. leaving insufficient time to deal with real and immediate healthcare problems. In retrospect, even Kizer himself called the expanding number of performance measurements "bloated and unfocused" (4).

At first VA administrators tried to deny the problem of delayed care due to insufficient staffing. Next VA Central Office tried to make all VA clinics walk-in clinics, essentially shifting the problem to the physicians. When caught in lies about short wait times, VA Secretary McDonald fired a few administrators in Phoenix and then tried to minimize the problem (5). When announcing their progress on the problem, the VA touts the number of people it has hired but usually does not specify the number of physicians or other healthcare providers. Now the VA has decided to let nurses and pharmacists pick up the slack. The VA has proposed removing physician supervision of nurse practitioners and has begun using pharmacists for primary care (6,7).

A number of medical groups have opposed the increased authority for nurses (8). Neither nurses nor pharmacists have the length of training of physicians (9).  However, objections by the AMA and other groups are likely to fall on deaf ears. Unless the VA can recruit physician which seems unlikely without reform, what other choice do they have? It is unclear if the VA and courts will hold these less experienced and lower skilled practitioners to the same high standards they have held physicians. However, given that the VA administrators are knowingly replacing physicians with less skilled practitioners, this would seem reasonable.

Wagner's series in the Arizona Republic seems to suggest that the VA's lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine if care at VA hospitals have improved over the last 2 years (9). The conclusion from the series appears to be that the VA has not. This is not surprising given that no real reform has taken place and McDonald appears not to be in control of the VA. For example, two short years ago McDonald was proposing to downsize the VA administration (10). Like so many reforms, this seems to have fallen by the wayside under opposition from VA administration. In fact, Wagner implies that VA administration may actually have grown beyond what was already a bloated bureaucracy (9).

President-elect Trump has been critical of the VA and McDonald. It seems likely he will be gone this January but the VA administrators will remain. Hopefully, McDonald's replacement will do better in reforming the VA. If not, it might be time to view the VA as what it has become, a white elephant whose cost outweighs all usefulness. Consideration should be given to replacing the VA with care in the private sector. Although care will be more expensive, it is better than no or poor care which is what the VA patients are receiving now.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Wagner D. Seven VA hospitals, one enduring mystery: What's really happening?. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2016/10/23/va-hospitals-veterans-health-care-quest-for-answers/90337096/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  2. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA celebrates 70 years of partnering with medical schools. Available at: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/includes/viewPDF.cfm?id=2747 (accessed 10/27/16).
  3. Department of Veterans Affairs. Still going strong - the history of VA academic affiliations. Available at: http://www.va.gov/OAA/videos/transcript_affiliation_history.asp (accessed 10/27/16).
  4. Kizer KW, Jha AK. Restoring trust in VA health care. N Engl J Med. 2014 Jul 24;371(4):295-7. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Rein L. VA chief compares waits for veteran care to Disneyland: They don’t measure and we shouldn’t either. Washington Post. May 23, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/05/23/va-chief-compares-waits-for-veteran-care-to-disneyland-they-dont-measure-and-we-shouldnt-either/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  6. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA Proposes to grant full practice authority to advanced practice registered nurses. May 29, 2016. Available at: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2793 (accessed 10/27/16).
  7. Galewitz P. VA shifts to clinical pharmacists to help ease patients’ long waits. Kaiser Health News. October 25, 2016. Available at: http://khn.org/news/va-treats-patients-impatience-with-clinical-pharmacists/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  8. Rein L. To cut wait times, VA wants nurses to act like doctors. Doctors say veterans will be harmed. Washington Post. May 27, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/05/27/to-cut-wait-times-va-wants-nurses-to-act-like-doctors-doctors-say-veterans-will-be-harmed/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  9. Robbins RA. Nurse pactitioners' substitution for physicians. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;12(2):64-71. [CrossRef]
  10. Krause J. MyVA re-org likely set to downsize VA workforce, a lot. DisabledVeterans.org. Jan 28, 2015. Available at: http://www.disabledveterans.org/2015/01/29/myva-reorganization-likely-set-downsize-va-workforce-lot/ (accessed 10/27/16).

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

Cite as Robbins RA. Has the VA Become a White Elephant? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(5):235-7. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc108-16 PDF 

Tuesday
May312016

The Evil That Men Do-An Open Letter to President Obama 

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones". William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2

Dear President Obama:

Late in a second term, a President's attention often turns to framing their legacy. I suspect you are no exception and have given this considerable thought. You might wish to be remembered for the Affordable Care Act, even called Obamacare, which brought the US closer to universal healthcare coverage. However, I recall the end of President Clinton's second term a short 16 years ago. During that administration the Federal coffers were full; an unprecedented business boom occurred; and foreign entanglements that might have led to war were avoided. However, most of us do not remember those positives, but recall a White House intern and a certain blue dress. As pointed out by Shakespeare over 400 years ago powerful men are remembered not so much for the good they do but the bad.

Robert McDonald, your Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), was brought on board two years ago to deal with concerns about long waiting times for Veterans Administration medical services-concerns and the subsequent lies that were told to cover it up that led you to fire his predecessor, Eric Shinseki. McDonald was talking to reporters in the week leading up to Memorial Day, when attention always turns not just to honoring America's war dead but to whether the government is delivering services it promised living Veterans. The reporters asked McDonald why the VA doesn't publicly report the date when veterans first ask for medical care so as to better measure waiting times (1). His reply:

"The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veteran's satisfaction. What really counts is: How does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA? When you go to Disney, do they measure the hours you wait in line?"

Although McDonald later apologized for his remarks, they were offensive to me as a physician who worked in the VA, and I might point out wrong on several fronts. First, Disney does track its wait times. Second, the remark shows a fundamental disconnect between upper echelon management and healthcare. As we pointed out several years ago, satisfaction with healthcare does not mean better healthcare, in fact, it may mean worse care, perhaps because the focus is more on satisfaction than good care (2). Third, McDonald's remark was truly disingenuous. McDonald is concerned about wait times which led you to fire his predecessor. Otherwise, why would the VA lift the supervision requirement for nurse practioners which they did later in the week (3)?

The prolonged wait times occurred because an insufferable VA administration created a hostile work environment for physicians. Many left and the VA was unable to replace them. Although salary is part of this, it is less of a problem than those inside the Beltway believe. The VA abandoned its academic affiliations and created a work environment where physicians seeing patients is largely put in the same category as janitors waxing a floor. Middle level administrators who know nothing about healthcare are now directing physicians on what they should do. The goal has become less about healthcare than the administrators being in charge. The replacement of physicians by nurse practioners is in line with this concept. The goal will not be as much to deliver quality healthcare, a concept that is often nebulous and hard to define, but rather to redefine quality. For example, replacing timely and good care with a measure such as making sure that on each visit the Veteran is reminded to fasten their safety belt (a current requirement), is certainly measurable, cheap and does not require a physician. In most businessmen's minds it matters little whether it does any good or not. It is a measure of someone's concept of quality and the VA will deliver quality as long as it does not cost too much and an administrator can receive a bonus for it. Based on the VA, many physicians are suspicious that this is the long term goal of Obamacare.

So on this Memorial Day, let us remember our Veterans, Mr. President, and consider your legacy. My view is that unless changes are made, your misdirection of healthcare both at the VA and nationally through Obamacare, could be your White House intern in a blue dress.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Capital Gazette editorial board. Our say: McDonald gaffe points to a deeper problem. Capital Gazette. May 30, 2016. Available at: HTUhttp://www.capitalgazette.com/opinion/our_say/ph-ac-ce-our-say-0529-20160529-story.htmlUTH (accessed 5/30/16).
  2. Robbins RA, Rashke RA. A new paradigm to improve patient outcomes: a tongue-in-cheek look at the cost of patient satisfaction. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;5:33-5. Available at: HTUhttp://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2012/7/17/a-new-paradigm-to-improve-patient-outcomes.htmlUTH (accessed 5/30/16).
  3. Japsen B. VA would join 21 states already lifting nurse practitioner hurdles. Forbes. May 26,2016. Available at: HTUhttp://www.forbes.com/sites/brucejapsen/2016/05/26/va-would-join-21-states-lifting-nurse-practitioner-hurdles/#2d4e391e9f2cUTH (accessed 5/30/16).

*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.

Cite as: Robbins RA. The evil that men do-an open letter to President Obama. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016 May;12(5):201-2. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc048-16 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

Friday
Jun262015

Time for the VA to Clean Up Its Act 

One year after a Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal was ignited here in Phoenix, the number of veterans on wait lists is 50 percent higher than at the same time last year, according to VA data (1). The VA is also facing a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall. VA Secretary Bob McDonald has asked for “flexibility” to reallocate billions of dollars in clinical funds to cover the shortfall.

Since the scandal broke last year, VA providers have increased their workloads, adding 2.7 million more appointments than the previous year. However, the VA has played "games" with patient eligibility for years. When money was plentiful VA administrators would open the doors to patients since the following years' budgets were based on the number of patients seen. However, when money was tight, the doors would be slammed shut leaving many patients in the lurch scrambling to obtain health care elsewhere. Now it appears that patients might be returning to the VA.

“Something has to give,” the department’s deputy secretary, Sloan D. Gibson, said in an interview. “We can’t leave this as the status quo. We are not meeting the needs of veterans, and veterans are signaling that to us by coming in for additional care, and we can’t deliver it as timely as we want to.” Now the VA is asking Congress' permission to use clinical funds to pay for the budgetary shortfall.

The VA has threatened furloughs and hiring freezes to reduce spending. This seems to be quite sensible. However, in the past, the VA has cut clinical positions which undoubtedly contributed to longer wait times. For example, when I was chief of pulmonary at the Phoenix VA, one of my physicians retired, giving 6 month notice. However, we were not allowed to replace the physician because of a "hiring freeze". This apparently only applied to clinicians since a new associate director was hired.

As we predicted over a year ago, the VA would continue to be troubled due to lack of reform and oversight (2).  The present VA secretary, Robert McDonald, is still relatively new on the job and inexperienced in both healthcare and government service. His inaction suggests that he may be confused, or worse, listening to long-entrenched central office bureaucrats. Below are some suggestions which could result in substantial savings and would have little impact on patient care.

Furlough the staffs of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs), the 21 VA regional offices which are scheduled to be downsized. The VISNs provide no healthcare and the savings in salaries from the nearly 5000 employees would be substantial (2). Similarly, VA central office which grew from 800 employees to 11,000 in less than 15 years could probably do with a few less administrators (3).

Local VA bureaucracies reflect the growth of central office and VISN bureaucracies. It is unclear what many of the hospital associate and assistant directors do other than sit in meetings. Most hospitals could do without them for a while. Similarly, compliance officers and patient "advocates" really serve no purpose. Despite multiple patient complaints about wait times, the lack of action that led to the VA scandal demonstrates that they are not effective. There are also some physicians and nurses who do not see patients. For example, most VA Chiefs of Staff do not see patients. Nursing administration is bloated with "clip board" nurses who do little than attend meetings and create an ever increasing, and seemingly never ending, stream of paperwork for nurses who are already overworked. Surely, we could do without some of these people. 

It seems unlikely that VA officials will implement any meaningful cost savings. Instead they will try to preserve the status quo by petitioning Congress to allow them to shift clinical funds depriving veterans of healthcare. That includes using funds from a new program that was a priority for congressional Republicans called the “Choice Card”. This program allows certain veterans to obtain taxpayer-funded care from private doctors. VA administrators have blamed the budget shortfall on this program along with a new treatment for hepatitis C (1). The VA has been accused of dragging its feet on the Choice program and once again appears to be trying to sabotage the program and keep the funds. Gibson said in the interview that in future years more money will also be needed. He said he intended to tell lawmakers, “Veterans are going to respond with increased demand, so get your checkbooks out.”

VA administrators appear more concerned with keeping money inside their dysfunctional agency than caring for vets. Based on past history, Congress will probably let the VA shift the money and none of the recommendations above will happen. If furloughs occur, they will be lower level employees and result in little financial saving. Of course, administrative bonuses will be hefty this year because in their eyes, the administrators have successfully averted a financial crisis. Unless there are some fundamental changes made at the VA, the trend of the last 20 years of bloating the bureaucracy at the expense of healthcare will continue.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Oppel, RA Jr. Wait lists grow as many more veterans seek care and funding falls far short. New York Times, June 20, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/us/wait-lists-grow-as-many-more-veterans-seek-care-and-funding-falls-far-short.html (accessed 6/24/15).
  2. Robbins RA. VA administrators breathe a sigh of relief. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(6):336-9. [CrossRef]
  3. Kizer KW, Jha AK. Restoring trust in VA health care. N Engl J Med 2014;371:295-7. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 

Reference as: Robbins RA. Time for the VA to clean up its act. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;10(6):350-1. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc088-15 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