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Editorials

Last 50 Editorials

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

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 
Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Beyond the AHI 

 

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 Veterans Administration (14)

Monday
Jan282019

More Medical Science and Less Advertising

A recent article appeared in JAMA Open Access reporting that wait times to see a provider in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have improved (1). You might remember that in the not so distant past the VA was embroiled in a controversy for reporting falsely short wait times (2). The widely publicized scandal was centered in Phoenix and led to the firing, resignation or retirement of a number of administrators in VA Central Office, the Southwest Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) and the Phoenix VA. What was not as well publicized, but perhaps even more disturbing, was that up to 70% of VA facilities also were reporting deceptively shortened wait times (3). Congress appropriated additional money for the VA to fix the wait times but it is unclear how the money was spent (2).

Now the VA reports that the wait times have shortened and compares favorably to the private sector. The VA’s history has to lead to some skepticism about the data. Is it true? Is it accurate? The short answer is that we do not know because the VA data is largely self-reported. The VA used a different method, the secret shopper approach, for the private sector assessment. In this method a caller requests a routine appointment with a randomly selected care physician in a given health care market. The reported VA data may not be representative of the VA as a whole. Only some metropolitan areas were selected and did not include non-metropolitan facilities and no facilities from the Southwest VISN where there was a known problem. Furthermore, the data is only for new patients requesting a primary care, dermatology, cardiology, or orthopedic appointment. Data for wait times to see other specialties is not reported.

An accompanying editorial by two VA investigators does a good job in explaining the nuances of the study (4). Editorials in response to a specific article are often authored by the reviewers. If these editorial authors were also the article’s reviewers, they can hardly be blamed for saying nice things about the manuscript since “biting the hand that feeds you” is usually a dangerous practice. However, why JAMA published the article in the first place is puzzling. Certainly, lack of timely access to healthcare is very important and lack of access has been associated with higher costs and worse outcomes (4,5). However, this article reports nothing about how the VA achieved this improvement in access. Was it by hiring additional physicians to see the patients or by hiring additional scheduling clerks or additional practice extenders such as physician assistants or nurse practitioners?

The VA data could be easily manipulated. If access by a limited number of new patients is all that is being reported, there may be a tendency to underfund other areas. What about other specialty areas such as oncology, nephrology, pulmonary, neurology, general surgery, ENT, audiology, and ophthalmology to name just a few? What about established patients? What about financial incentives? Were the administrators given bonuses for improving access in these highly selected areas but none or less in others? This is the system the VA used during the wait times scandal and likely contributed to the falsification of data (6).

As it now stands the manuscript represents more advertising than medical science. Medical journals owe their readers better. Hopefully, we at the Southwest Journal are doing a better job of publishing articles that allows the practitioners to better care for their patients and not administrators make their bonus.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Penn M, Bhatnagar S, Kuy S, Lieberman S, Elnahal S, Clancy C, Shulkin D. Comparison of Wait Times for New Patients Between the Private Sector and United States Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Jan 4;2(1):e187096. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  2. Wagner D. Seven VA hospitals, one enduring mystery: What's really happening? The Arizona Republic. October 23, 2016. Available at: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2016/10/23/va-hospitals-veterans-health-care-quest-for-answers/90337096/ (accessed 1/25/19).
  3. 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/ (accessed 1/25/19).
  4. Kaboli PJ, Fihn SD. Waiting for Care in Veterans Affairs Health Care Facilities and Elsewhere. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Jan 4;2(1):e187079. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Roemer MI, Hopkins CE, Carr L, Gartside F. Copayments for ambulatory care: penny-wise and pound-foolish. Med Care. 1975 Jun;13(6):457-66. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Robbins RA. VA scandal widens. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):288-9.

Cite as: Robbins RA. More medical science and less advertising. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2019;18(1):29-30. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc005-19 PDF 

Cite as: Robbins RA

Thursday
Mar162017

Pain Scales and the Opioid Crisis 

In the last year, physicians and nurses have increasingly voiced their dissatisfaction with pain as the fifth vital sign. In June 2016, the American Medical Association recommended that pain scales be removed in professional medical standards (1). In September 2016, the American Academy of Family Physicians did the same (2). A recent Medscape survey reported that over half of surveyed doctors and nurses supported removal of pain assessment as a routine vital sign (3).

In the 1990’s there was a widespread impression that pain was undertreated. Whether this was true or an impression created by a few practitioners and undertreated patients with the support of the pharmaceutical industry is unclear. Nevertheless, the prevailing thought became that identifying and quantifying pain would lead to more appropriate pain therapy. The American Society of Anesthesiologists and the American Pain Society issued practice guidelines for pain management (4,5). Subsequently, both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) mandated a pain scale as the fifth vital sign (6-9). Most commonly these scales ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10. The JCAHO mandated that "Pain is assessed in all patients” and would give hospitals "requirements for Improvement" if they failed to meet this standard (9). The JCAHO also published a book in 2000 for purchase as part of required continuing education seminars (9). The book cited studies that claimed "there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control." It also called doctors' concerns about addiction side effects "inaccurate and exaggerated." The book was sponsored by Purdue Pharma makers of oxycodone.

Almost as soon as the standards were initiated, suggestions emerged that pain treatment was becoming overzealous. In 2003 a survey of 250 adults who had undergone surgical procedures reported that almost 90% were satisfied with their pain medications. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that “many patients continue to experience intense pain after surgery … additional efforts are required to improve patients’ postoperative pain experience” (8). Concerns about overaggressive treatment for pain increased after Vila et al. (10) reported in 2005 that the incidence of opioid oversedation increased from 11.0 to 24.5 per 100 000 inpatient hospital days after the hospitals implemented a numerical pain treatment algorithm. As early as 2002 the Institute for Safe Medication Practices linked overaggressive pain management to a substantial increase in oversedation and fatal respiratory depression events (11). Articles appeared questioning the wisdom of asking every patient to rate their pain noting that implementation of the scale did not appear to improve pain management (12). The JCAHO removed its standard to assess pain in all patients but not until 2009.

The US has seen a dramatic increase in the incidence of opioid deaths (13). It is unclear if adoption of the pain scale and its widespread application to all patients contributed to the increase although the time frame and the data from Vila et al. (10) suggest that this is likely.

There have been other factors that may have also contributed to the increase in opioid deaths. The Medscape survey mentioned above asked participants how often they feel pressure to prescribe pain medication in order to keep patient satisfaction levels high (3). Specifically mentioned was the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems or HCAHPS. HCAHPS is a patient satisfaction survey required for all hospitals in the US. About two thirds of doctors and nurses felt there was pressure (3). The survey also asked respondents about the influence of patient reviews on opioid prescribing. Forty-six percent of doctors said the reviews were more than slightly influential. The surveys seemed to carry more weight with nurses. Seventy-three percent said the reviews were influential. Others have blamed pharmaceutical company marketing opioids as a way of reducing pain and increasing patient satisfaction (14). Clearly, there has been a dramatic increase in narcotic prescriptions. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies have done little to curb the use of their products.

Earlier this year, former CDC Director Tom Frieden said "The prescription overdose epidemic is doctor-driven…It can be reversed in part by doctors' actions” (15). Some physicians have taken this as blame for the entire opioid crisis, including deaths from heroin and illegal fentanyl. There may be some validity in this belief since abuse of illegal narcotics sometimes evolves out of abuse of prescribed narcotics. However, the actions of the health regulatory agencies that mandated pain scales and created guidelines for pain management were not mentioned by Dr. Frieden. Also, not mentioned are the patient satisfaction surveys. 

About a year ago the CDC issued guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain (15). These guidelines were developed in collaboration with a number of federal agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs which was one of the first to mandate pain scales and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) which mandated HCAHPS. Pain is a subjective symptom and quantification and treatment are imprecise. The goal cannot be to deliver perfect pain management but to reduce the incidence of under- and overtreatment as much as possible. Someone needs to assess patients’ pain complaints and prescribe opioids appropriately. No one is better qualified and prepared than the clinician at the bedside.

No one condones the unethical practice of widespread prescription of opioids without sufficient medical oversight. However, meddling by unqualified bureaucrats, administrators and politicians emphasizes guidelines over appropriate care. As detailed above, the present opioid crisis may be an unattended consequence of the pain scale and opioid prescribing guidelines. Further intrusion by the same groups who created the crisis is unlikely to solve the problem but is likely to create additional problems such as the undertreatment of patients with severe pain. As I write this on the ides of March it may be appropriate to paraphrase a line from Julius Cesar, “The fault lies not in our doctors but in our regulators”.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Anson P. AMA drops pain as vital sign. Pain News Network. June 16, 2016. Available at: https://www.painnewsnetwork.org/stories/2016/6/16/ama-drops-pain-as-vital-sign (accessed 3/2/17).
  2. Lowes R. Drop pain as the fifth vital sign, AAFP says. Medscape Medical News. September 22, 2016. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/869169 (accessed 3/2/17).
  3. Ault A. Many physicians, nurses want pain removed as fifth vital sign. Medscape Medical News. Medscape Medical News. February 21, 2017. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/875980?nlid=113119_3464&src=WNL_mdplsfeat_170228_mscpedit_ccmd&uac=9273DT&spon=32&impID=1299168&faf=1 (accessed 3/2/17).
  4. Practice guidelines for acute pain management in the perioperative setting. A report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Pain Management, Acute Pain Section. Anesthesiology. 1995 Apr;82(4):1071-81. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Gordon DB, Dahl JL, Miaskowski C, McCarberg B, Todd KH, Paice JA, Lipman AG, Bookbinder M, Sanders SH, Turk DC, Carr DB. American pain society recommendations for improving the quality of acute and cancer pain management: American Pain Society Quality of Care Task Force. Arch Intern Med. 2005 Jul 25;165(14):1574-80. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. National Pain Management Coordinating Committee. Pain as the 5Th vital sign toolkit. Department of Veterans Affairs. October 2000. Available at: https://www.va.gov/PAINMANAGEMENT/docs/Pain_As_the_5th_Vital_Sign_Toolkit.pdf (accessed 3/2/17).
  7. Baker DW. History of The Joint Commission's Pain Standards: Lessons for Today's Prescription Opioid Epidemic. JAMA. 2017 Mar 21;317(11):1117-8. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  8. Apfelbaum JL, Chen C, Mehta SS, Gan TJ. Postoperative pain experience: results from a national survey suggest postoperative pain continues to be undermanaged. Anesth Analg. 2003;97(2):534-540. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  9. Moghe S. Opioid history: From 'wonder drug' to abuse epidemic. CNN. October 14, 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/12/health/opioid-addiction-history/ (accessed 3/2/17).
  10. Vila H Jr, Smith RA, Augustyniak MJ, et al. The efficacy and safety of pain management before and after implementation of hospital-wide pain management standards: is patient safety compromised by treatment based solely on numerical pain ratings? Anesth Analg. 2005;101(2):474-480. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  11. Institute for Safe Medication Practices. Pain scales don’t weigh every risk. July 24, 2002. Available at: https://www.ismp.org/newsletters/acutecare/articles/20020724.asp (accessed 3/2/17).
  12. Mularski RA, White-Chu F, Overbay D, Miller L, Asch SM, Ganzini L. Measuring pain as the 5th vital sign does not improve quality of pain management. J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Jun;21(6):607-12. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  13. Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in drug and opioid-involved overdose deaths - United States, 2010-2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016 Dec 16;65. Published on-line. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  14. Cha AE. The drug industry’s answer to opioid addiction: More pills. Washington Post. October 16, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-drug-industrys-answer-to-opioid-addiction-more-pills/2016/10/15/181a529c-8ae4-11e6-bff0-d53f592f176e_story.html?utm_term=.36c5992fa62f (accessed 3/2/17).
  15. Lowes R. CDC issues opioid guidelines for 'doctor-driven' epidemic. Medscape. March 15, 2016. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/860452 (accessed 3/2/17).

Cite as: Robbins RA. Pain scales and the opioid crisis. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2017;14(3):119-22. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc033-17 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

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