I write by way of greeting; I write by way of exhortation to action, as the current status quo is reprehensible and unacceptable. Uncomfortable truths are those realities where bureaucracy has superseded logic and leadership, creating situations where the harm of the patient/customer is the first and only business. There are good people at the Department of Veterans Affairs; but, these people are being crushed by the bureaucracy, the stifling mental inertia, and the lack of actionable leaders to propel change at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the National Cemetery.
An example of uncomfortable truths: I witnessed a veteran enter the emergency room of the VA Medical Center, and be actively, but passively, abused. Because he was a regular, and sometimes came in and was obstinate, and because he was homeless, he had a history with this emergency room and staff. The staff actively overlooked him, they talked bad about him, they cussed him out behind his back, and his service was suboptimal at best when he was finally treated. As this veteran was not the only one being treated in this manner, this was brought to the attention of hospital leadership; the person reporting the abuse was terminated without cause. This is a leadership issue, a process problem, and an excuse not to change.
Another example of uncomfortable truths: the VBA needs/wants “New and Material Evidence” to process/review/correct a claim. The Primary Care Provider and all specialty clinics at the VA cannot provide “New and Material Evidence,” as they are not diagnosticians. Thus, the veteran is left stuck between two bureaucracies that refuse to help, because the rules do not allow the providers to help; this a leadership problem and a process issue. How can the veteran afford outside insurance to obtain the “New and material evidence?”
Earlier this month, the OIG sent out a report over death at the VA due to leadership inefficiencies and can be found here, VA-OIG report. Over the last week, three more incident reports have been discharged from the VA-OIG. Report 1: Has a veteran dying of suicide, because the decision-making process, a process designed specifically to improve communication to aid high-risk patients were not implemented, tracked, and reported properly. The decision-making process is expected to employ a full patient-care team (PACT) in evaluating and making decisions that affect the patient’s care. The process was not followed, and the veteran who is already at high-risk for suicide and known to the PACT was deactivated, leading to a veteran’s death. The VA-OIG made a recommendation to improve the process, the same process that was disabled, leading to a dead veteran. How does this make sense?
The uncomfortable truth is multi-faceted in this case. Leadership does not do record audits to ensure the deactivation of high-risk patients does not become “lost” in the bureaucracy. Leadership is not flagged when the PACT disagrees with the treatment of a patient. Finally, the VA-OIG has no teeth to reprimand, insist, and improve compliance; they can only make recommendations after the fact. Congressional representatives and Senators, you allowed the VA to have its own dedicated inspector general, why? What will you do to enhance the leadership at the VA? Do not tell me again; we will hold “Committee Meetings.” These committee meetings have been, and continue to be a feckless waste of taxpayer time, money, and never addresses the core issues apparent.
Report 2: Covers a veteran needing an appendectomy and had to wait for three hours for the surgeon to become available to perform the surgery. The VA-OIG confirmed the delay in care, but essentially settled for, “Well, the patient lived, so no problem here.” If that statement seems overly simplified of the process, tell me why the patient had to wait. Why pay records and timekeeping records were messed up for a single month (May 2018), and how pay and timekeeping records got messed up in the first place. The VA uses a national system for reporting time worked, but not all employees use the same payment system. If true, why aren’t all employees, to include residents, surgeons, and staff using the same pay system? The wait is blamed on poor communication, communication in scheduling surgery, communication between resident and surgeons, and communication because the “appropriate documentation” was insufficiently maintained.
I know from sad experience that there are nurses and doctors who write things down in notebooks, on scrap paper, and on paper charts, when the computer on wheels (COWS) is readily available. The excuse is always, “I am too busy to use that thing.” I know the VA has spent an excessive amount of money to get digital records, installing digital records, getting digital records to work when needed, and delivering the digital record available to mobile stations to document what is happening with the patient. I have some grave concerns for checkbox medicine; but, blaming a surgical delay on improperly maintained documentation remains a wholly inexcusable and unacceptable statement in an official investigation. Why was this lame excuse allowed to stand?
Report 2, exemplifies a multi-faceted problem presenting a need for a multi-faceted approach to correction. Leadership at the hospital must be actively engaged, ensuring processes and procedures are optimized to deliver the “I-CARE” customer promise. Communication chains are a leadership tool, and when broken, correction demands accountability and responsibility to resolve correctly. Reporting is a leadership function to ensure liability and corrective action as a normal operating procedure. Did anyone ask why the documentation was not maintained? Was this lack of documentation maintenance a design flaw to hide what happened during this incident as an extension of designed incompetence?
Report 2, demands answers on two distinct issues double-dipping, and the continued practice of collective design incompetence. Double-dipping by providers working for the VA at the same time they are working at other medical institutions, is this occurring? Why? I understand there is a provider shortage at the VA. I know doctors need to make money, and doctors make money by seeing patients, surgeons make money performing surgery. The VA-OIG report appears to gloss over the practice of double-dipping e.g., on-call from one hospital while working at another, or working at another hospital while the VA expects you to be at their hospital. Senators and Congressional representatives, are you investigating the potential for double-dipping? Will it take a dead veteran before you even care about double-dipping occurring? I make no accusations; I am asking honest questions on this issue in an attempt to learn more. Will you do the same?
One of the most egregious problems at the VA is designed incompetence to allow a malefactor the ability to hide behind bureaucracy to avoid accountability and responsibility. Designed incompetence remains a significant problem and I do not see any of the mid-level managers, leaders, supervisors, trainers, etc. acting to eliminate designed incompetence to the improvement of the Department of Veterans Affairs. During President Obama’s Administration, I watched a Congressional Committee meeting where whistle-blowers were invited and testified about the designed incompetence that allows for an individual to pass the buck, duck responsibility, and protect their jobs and power at the VA. I keep discussing design incompetence, because the mid-level managers, directors, and supervisors at the VA refuse to address and correct this issue. Senators and Congressional Representatives, why do you allow this practice to continue? Did you know that this is the primary method for discriminating and harming whistle-blowers? Of course, you did. I have seen several committee meetings where this exact issue was discussed, and the bloviation from the committee does nothing. You are the leaders in our Republican Society, when are you going to act, in concert with Secretary Wilkie (who’s doing an exceptional job), correcting and insist these practices cease?
Report 3: Involves 60,000+ veterans, is this number sufficient to warrant permanent action on the proper billing of insurance companies and veterans, or does this number need to exceed some other level before it warrants your attention. If a different level is required, what is that magical number? I guarantee that veterans from all states and territories are involved here, as their representatives, what will you do?
Directly from the VA Website, we find two different uses for funds collected:
- “VA is required by Public Law 87–693; 42 USC. 2651, commonly known as the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act, to bill the health insurance carrier that provides health care coverage for Veterans to include policies held by their spouse. The money collected goes back to VA medical centers to support health care costs provided to all Veterans.
- “Funds that VA receives from third party health insurance carriers go directly back to VA Medical Center’s operational budget.”
You, the elected officials of the Republic of the United States of America, enacted these laws and improper billing of veterans and insurance companies, causes financial harm and distress; this is your problem! Do you understand that even if money is returned to a veteran, the financial injury has been done? Those veterans who have paid a bill, or the insurance company that paid a statement, they didn’t need to pay is an interest-free loan to the government, and this is wrong!
There are literally tons of money at stake here; I know my local VA Hospital said, “The funds collected when we bill insurance companies come directly to this hospital for construction projects, renovations, new equipment, and so forth.” Report 3 is but one of how many VA-OIG reports where improper billing is occurring. Incorrect billing drives the cost of healthcare up. Hence, Obamacare costs more because the VA is not accurately billing. Medicare costs more because of improper billing. You the elected officials are directly responsible for ensuring proper billing occurs as an aid in reducing the costs of healthcare.
Where are you? Will you act?
© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury
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