NO MORE BS: Bureaucratic Fiat, a Veteran Suicide – Scrutinizing the Government

ApathyThe Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is in trouble due primarily to the employees’ lack of written directions, procedures, and processes to complete work.  Of the poor Veterans Health Administration (VHA), there is none worse than the Carl T. Hayden VA Hospital system in Phoenix, AZ.  I support this conclusion with both personal observations and through comparative analysis.  Much research has gone into this conclusion, and while there are other VHA’s that compete for the bottom, the clear winner remains the Phoenix VA Medical Center (VAMC).

What is bureaucratic fiat?

Bureaucratic fiat is government employees who make decisions in their positions who rigidly adhere to any rule not to perform their job, inconvenience the customer, or thwart responsibility, accountability, and maintain their positions.  Bureaucratic fiat survives sections from the Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) through designed incompetence, lack of training, confusing processes, unwritten rules and guidelines, and simple negligence.

LinkedIn VA ImageVeteran Suicide!

Outside of first responders and active military, the suicide rates of veterans are too high and rising.  The suicide rate is disgusting to behold and tragic beyond words.  Of all the topics I discuss, veteran suicide remains my pet topic.  When veterans or military members (Reserve, National Guard, or Active) commit suicide, this rips a hole in communities, families, and the guilt the family and friends carry is so intense, they struggle not to commit suicide themselves.

Scrutinizing the Government!

DetectiveThe VA-OIG reported on a veteran who committed suicide, with ties to the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix.  The veteran reported to the hospital, asking for help.  The VA-OIG found that processes were intentionally not followed.  Help was not forthcoming, and the veteran committed suicide before the VA got their thumbs out and offered this veteran help.  The VA-OIG found the following:

      • “While the patient awaited the testing, facility staff failed to offer mental health treatment.
      • The social worker did not complete a suicide risk assessment and relied on another social worker’s suicide risk assessment completed eight months prior.
      • A family member called and left a voicemail message for the social worker. However, the social worker’s documentation did not include essential information, specifically that the patient died by suicide.
      • Upon learning of the patient’s death by suicide, a Suicide Prevention Coordinator failed to complete timely documentation of outreach to the patient’s family… the mental health delegate did not approve the community care psychology consult within three business days, as required by VHA.
      • The third-party administrator scheduled the patient for therapy rather than psychodiagnostics testing.
      • The facility scheduling staff did not complete required outreach efforts when the patient missed a primary care appointment one day before the patient’s death by suicide.
      • The Suicide Prevention Coordinator did not complete the patient’s behavioral health autopsy within 30 days, as required.”

One incident, one VAMC, one veteran, and nothing from the VA will protect veterans and improve the adherence to the policies and procedures moving forward; why even investigate by the VA-OIG?.  I weep with this family who lost their loved one to suicide.  I scream in frustration that the VA can continue to kill veterans struggling with suicide with impunity.

Detective 3Do not be deceived; this is not the only incident in Phoenix or all of the VA Healthcare System.  A veteran reaches out for help with suicide ideation, receives bureaucratic nonsense instead of support, and is treated to the red tape that becomes the noose in the suicide of that veteran.  One event a year is a tragedy of epic proportions.  The list never seems to end, nor do the bureaucrats ever get held accountable for their inactivity, contributing to veteran suicide.

12 November 2020, The Military Times reported that from 22005 through 2018, veterans committing suicide had risen dramatically, to a high in 2014 of 6,587.  Is the epicness of this tragedy more apparent?  Presuming that each of these veterans had two parents who came together and invested time to create the child that became the veteran,  13,174 parents now weep to lose their son or daughter who committed suicide.  According to the US Census, families in America had 1.9 children per couple (2014), rounding up to 26,348 is the potential parents and grandparents affected by suicide, and 52,696 is the pool when siblings are added.  If each of these suicides had a significant other, with two parents and two siblings, the potential affected by suicide is now approximately 105,392.  Add employers, friends from employment, communities, and educational or academic acquaintances, and the number of people affected by suicide can quickly reach a million people.  I used 2014 as the year to base the numbers upon as this was the highest number currently available, but 2020 saw a dramatic increase in suicide among all age groups and those with the Census delays; I doubt America will learn the full impact from COVID government madness any time soon.

LookNow, consider the following, each of those veterans who committed suicide in 2014 (6,587) had a suicide prevention team in place at the VA who failed to act.  6,587 people who deserved better treatment at the hands of the government employees, who have pledged to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.  Failed the veteran and played a role in the suicide of the veteran.  Rarely do the veterans who commit suicide, in VA parking spots, on Federal property receive the attention they deserve.  I am intimately aware of one such issue with the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque.  The veteran could not get help, became frustrated, walked to his car, and killed himself.

2019, The Washington Times, who proudly continues to declare that “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” ran a story about veterans who take their lives on VA Campuses, is a “form of protest” against the VA Healthcare system.  No, this is not generally the case; the veteran is not protesting; they are fed up with the fight to be respected, noticed, and receive assistance from people who have pledged to fulfill the Department of Veterans Affairs Mission Statement.  To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”

DutyI demand to know where are the legislative branches of government in scrutinizing the operations at the VA?  Why are suicide rates allowed to climb without significant input from the legislative branch?  Why are veterans, directly after an encounter with the VA bureaucracy, committing suicide without in-depth investigations where heads roll for failing to perform the most basic customer service in fulfilling the VA’s Mission Statement?

While an employee of the VA, to get to the directors of the hospital’s offices, I had to walk past this mission statement that hung on brass letters, and all my attempts to aid in change fell on brass ears and plastic lips!  Every time the VA-OIG reports another death by suicide, death by negligence, with ties directly to VA employees not performing their jobs, I want to scream in frustration!  Veteran suicide rates are egregiously high, and for veterans to commit suicide within 96 hours of a visit to the VA is 100% unacceptable!  Why 96 hours; because to date, this is the longest time between actions by the VAMC and the death by suicide the VA-OIG has reported where VA employees should have been held accountable for their refusals to act in a manner to prevent a veteran from committing suicide.

Millstone of Designed IncompetenceAfter over a decade of reading and reporting VA-OIG reports and investigations, the deaths by suicide and negligence are the ones that raise my ire the most!  I would see the VA improve, but until the VA admits, or is forced by elected representatives to admit, they have a problem, nothing will change.  But the horror in that sentence is that veterans will continue to commit suicide and die through VA Employee negligence, and their deaths are as unremarked as if these heroes were common criminals who died in a prison brawl.  This remains an abysmal testimony to the incompetence and uncaring bureaucrat found in the VA’s vaunted halls!

© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

Symptoms Not Cause – Shifting the Paradigm at the Department of Veterans Affairs

I-CareFor Memorial Day (2020), the National Cemetery, through the directive of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), restricted the placing of flags at several national cemeteries, upsetting the plans of Boy Scouts, and angering countless veterans, survivors, dependents, and extended families.  However, the intransigence of the VA on this matter is but a symptom of a larger problem.

ProblemsThe Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) recently released two additional reports on behavior unbecoming at the VA.  The first report concerns the delays in diagnosis and treatment in dialysis patients, as well as patient transport at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina.  The second is another death of a patient, as well as deficiencies in domiciliary safety and security at the Northeast Ohio Healthcare System in Cleveland.

The VA report from North Carolina includes significant patient issues, especially since two veterans died while in the care of the VA.  Significant issues are generally code words for incredibly lax processes, and procedures that are easily avoided, provided people care enough to do their jobs correctly, succinctly, and thoroughly.  Where patients are concerned a dead patient is pretty significant.  Two dead patients are beyond the comprehension of a reasonable person to not ask, “Who lost their jobs over these incidents?”

Patient A, has leukemia, and from the VA-OIG’s report we find the following responsible parties:

“… A primary care provider failed to act on Patient A’s abnormal laboratory results and pathologists’ recommendations for follow-up testing and hematology consultation. Community Care staff did not process a consult and schedule Patient A’s appointment.

Patient A died from a gastrointestinal bleed while waiting for transport to a hospital from a (VA Contracted) [long-term] care facility.  Patient A’s delays in care led to death in hospital, and the failure of a hospitalist to initiate emergency procedures contributed to the veteran’s passing.  Patient A’s death is a tragical farce of bureaucratic inaction, compounded by the same symptoms as that allowed for Memorial Day (2020) to come and go without the honored dead of America being remembered.  Symptoms not cause.

Patient B, was also in a (VA Contracted) [long-term] care facility, in need of transport back to the hospital, and the administrative staff’s delays had Patient B arrive at the hospital in cardiac failure, where the patient subsequently died.  In the case of both patient’s facility leaders did not initiate comprehensive analyses of events surrounding the patients’ deaths or related processes. But, this is excusable behavior at the VA due to frequent executive leadership changes impeding the resolution of systemic issues.  I have been covering the VA-OIG reports for the better part of a decade and this excuse is always an acceptable excuse for bureaucratic inaction.  Hence, the first question in this madness is to the VA-OIG and it needs to answer, “Why is this an allowable excuse?”  Don’t the people remaining know their positions sufficiently to carry on when the executive team is in flux?  Again, symptoms not cause.

The patient death in Northeast Ohio, started with the domiciliary, on a VA Contract care facility.  Essentially, the patient died because of methadone being provided without first gaining an electrocardiogram.  Oversight of the contracted domiciliary did not include accuracy checks on paperwork, but the VA-OIG found that for the most part, the contracted domiciliary was following VA Contracting guidelines.  From the report, no gross negligence led to the veterans passing, and for the most part risk analysis and other post mortem analysis were conducted properly.  Why is this case mentioned; symptoms not cause.

When I worked at the New Mexico VA Medical Center (NMVAMC) I diagnosed a problem and was told, repeatedly, to not mention the problem as the director would be furious.  The problem is bureaucratic inertia.  Bureaucratic inertia is commonly defined as, “the supposed inevitable tendency of bureaucratic organizations to perpetuate the established procedures and modes, even if they are counterproductive and/or diametrically opposed to established organizational goals.”  Except, the bureaucratic inertia I witnessed daily was not “supposedly inevitable,” it was a real and cogent variable in every single action from most of the employees.

I spent 12 months without proper access to systems, but the process to gain access was convoluted, unknown, ever-changing, and so twisted that unraveling the proper methods to complete the process and gain access was never corrected, and this was a major issue for patient care in an Emergency Department.  Why was the process so bad; bureaucratic inertia.  Obtaining information about the problem took two different assistant directors, two different directors, a senior leader, and the problem was identified that licensing requirements were the sticking point in the problem.

InertiaBureaucratic inertia is the cause of too many issues, problems, and dead veterans, at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  The symptoms include delays in administrative tasks that lead to patients dying for lack of transport to a hospital.  The symptoms include cost overrun on every construction project the VA commences.  The symptoms include abuse of employees, creating a revolving door in human resources where good people come in with enthusiasm, and leave with anger and contempt, generally at the insistence of a leader who refuses to change.  The symptoms include a bureaucrat making a decision that has no logical sense, costs too much and is never held accountable for the harm because the decision-maker can prove they met the byzantine labyrinth of rules, regulations, and policies of the VA.

Veterans are dying at the VA regularly because of bureaucratic inertia.  Hence, as bureaucratic inertia is the problem, and the symptoms are prevalent, it must needs be that a solution is found to eradicate bureaucratic inertia.  While not a full solution, the following will help curb most of the problem, and begin the process for the eradication of bureaucratic inertia.

  1. Give the VA-OIG power to enact change when cause and effect analysis shows a person is “the” problem in that chain of events. Right now, the office of inspector general has the power to make recommendations, that are generally, sometimes, potentially, considered, and possible remediations adopted, provided a different course of action is discovered.
  2. Give the executive committee, of which the head is Secretary Wilkie, legislative power to fire and hold people accountable for not doing the jobs they were hired, and vetted at $110,000+ per employee, to perform. Background checks on new employees cost the taxpayer $110,000+, and the revolving door in human resources is unacceptable.  But worse is when the leaders refuse to perform their jobs and remain employed.
  3. Implement ISO as a quality control system where processes, procedures, and policies are written down. The ability for management to change the rules on a whim costs money, time, patient confidence, trust in leadership and organization, and is a nuisance that permeates the VA absolutely.  The lack of written policies and procedures is the second most common excuse for bureaucratic inertia.  The first being, the ability to blame changing leadership for dead patients!
  4. Eliminate labor union protection. Government employees have negotiated plentiful benefits, conditions, and pay without union representation and the ability for the union to get criminal complaints dropped, and worthless people their jobs back is an ultimate disgrace upon the Magna Charta of the United States of America generally, and upon the seal of the Department of Veterans Affairs specifically.

Leadership CartoonSecretary Wilkie, until you can overcome the bureaucratic inertia prevalent in the ranks of the leadership between the front-line veteran facing employee and your office, lasting change remains improbable.  Real people are dying from bureaucratic inertia.  Real veterans are spending their entire lives in the appeal process for benefits and dying without proper treatment.  Real families are being torn asunder from the stress of untreated veterans because the bureaucratic inertia cannot be overcome from the outside.  I know you need legislative assistance to enact real change and improve the VA.  By way of petition, I write this missive to the American citizen asking for your help in providing Sec. Wilkie the tools he needs to fix the VA.

The VA can be fixed, but the solution will require fundamental change.

Change is possible with proper legislative support!

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

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