Updated Inspector General Reports – Department of Veterans Affairs: These Actions Must Cease!

I-CareLong have I written about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) reports which cross my inbox.  Long have I been utterly disgusted with the waste, fraudulent behavior, and the utter disregard for the patient witnessed in the VA Medical Centers across America.  As a veteran and taxpayer, it is past time to begin to see action to rectify these types of issues.

The VA-OIG conducted an inspection to evaluate concerns related to a Virtual Pharmacy Services (VPS) pharmacist’s discontinuation of antidepressant medication for a patient of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, which resulted in the patient not having prescribed antidepressant medication for approximately six weeks before dying by suicide.  The VA-OIG found that the pharmacist never notified the psychologist, never checked the patient’s record, simply discontinued the medication.  While the VA-OIG found process and procedure issue, the fact that a medication could be arbitrarily discontinued without a “Red Flag” being raised with the provider and the patient is deeply troubling.  Worse, the quality control processes in the pharmacy did not trigger a problem when a medication was discontinued without a provider order; why?

There is a dead veteran, and a pharmacist who claimed they did not know they could access a patient file; and the excuses do not hold water!  This incident is a tragedy of epic proportion and I must ask, how many more veterans will die because medications are arbitrarily turned off?

ProblemsThe next VA-OIG inspection is a bit of a pretzel, there is another dead veteran by suicide, and processes and procedures were recommended by the VA-OIG to correct some small issues in bariatric surgery patients.  Reading this report, it appears that this veterans’ suicide was not directly connected to preoperative counseling for bariatric surgery which was essentially the scope of the VA-OIG investigation.  If there is a connection between the bariatric surgery and the suicide, it was beyond the VA-OIG investigatory scope.  Hence, the VA might not be at fault for the suicide, but the VA-OIG recommendations indicate more can and should be done in the future to decrease the risks postoperatively.

Let me be clear, room for improvement to decrease risk does not assign or negate blame in this situation.  The death of a veteran through suicide remains a tragedy and the VA can and should be doing more to help reduce veterans committing suicide.  With the convoluted processes and the contradictory bureaucracies inside the VA, much more can be done as an organization to streamline and bring efficiency, transparency, and responsibility to the employees making patient decisions.

Chinese CrisisAnother VA-OIG report does clearly reflect the responsibility and lack of care a patient received at the VA.  The Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville is responsible for test results still not being properly communicated to the veteran in a timely manner, which delays treatment and care.  Fall 2018, a patient went undiagnosed and untreated for pancreatic cancer due to failures in communicating test results, collaborating with the primary care providers, and for the electronic health records not containing a system of alerting providers that an adverse test result occurred.  Hence, this patient’s problems have three root causes:

  1. Failure to notify the patient.
  2. Failure to collaborate between different hospital units for patient care and safety.
  3. Failure of the electronic health records programming to include alerts.

From personal experience, I must wonder if any patient notification would have made a difference.  The patient notifications are simply the results, not definitions, no descriptions, just ranges, and results.  Hence, the patient notification process must include clarity of the results so non-medical people can understand what was found and the implications.

While I applaud the VA-OIG for insisting that an internal review is conducted and problems rectified, I have significant doubts that change will occur.  It appears that unless the VA-OIG is following up on their recommendations; which is outside the VA-OIG’s authority, the change will not occur.  A truly unfortunate series of events occurred in this patient’s life and the bureaucracy of the VA will prevent anyone from being held accountable for the failures, nor will change occur to protect another veteran.

The W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, North Carolina, was recently inspected for concerns regarding anesthesia provider’s practice.  While no issues were found under the VA-OIG scope regarding the provider’s practices, other issues were discovered.  The problems found were all administrative in nature and included the usual training, timely record keeping, following the policies established by VHA, etc.  Juran’s Rule states that “When there is a problem, 90% of the time the problem lies with policies and procedures, not people.”  How, and when, a person does their job is more often the root of the problem and is evidenced again with this VA-OIG investigation report.  The fact that this problem continues at all VA Medical Centers (VAMC) across America is indicative of a systematic issue in poor organizational design, then in the individual employee.  The VA must address these organizational issues that breed complacency in employee adherence!

LinkedIn VA ImageWith confirmed cases of nepotism still occurring in the VA, this time in Miami.  With continued issues regarding ethics violations and the proper use of time and materials for teleworking employees.  With the continued employee obstruction witnessed in so many cases of records not being readily available to VA-OIG inspectors.  The VA desperately needs to have a deep cleaning and reorganization.  Why has the VA not adopted ISO-9001 for Hospitals?  Why hasn’t the VA adopted ISO-9001 for the VBA or National Cemetery as a coherent process for organizational change and improvement?

Consider that there remains a dearth of written processes, procedures, and policies in the VA.  So much so that more than one VA Hospital operates on “Gentlemen’s Agreements” between departments, instead of official policy statements and procedural plans.  This lack of written policies and procedures is the excuse and the general recommendation of so many VA-OIG inspection reports that I am shocked Congress has not begun asking about this single issue.  The first rule I learned as an EMT was, “If it is not written down, it never happened.”  I was told this is the first rule of medicine; yet, somehow the VA can escape without writing down how to perform work.  Doesn’t that seem strange to anyone else?

Where the lack of written procedures is most noticeable, is at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), where the quality control people missed 35% of the errors routinely, never checked each other’s work, never learned lessons to improve performance, and were not properly supervised.  Yet, training, communication, and written procedures are routinely used as excuses, and corrective action is outside the VA-OIG investigatory scope.  So, while the problems are being identified, the leaders are refusing to do their jobs!  From the VA-OIG report comes the following details:

“The VA-OIG estimated that during the review period, regional office managers inappropriately overturned errors in 430 of 870 quality reviews (about 50 percent) where claims processors requested a reconsideration from a quality review specialist- identified errors. The VBA has not established adequate oversight or accountability to ensure the timeliness of error corrections. The OIG estimated that during the review period 2,000 of 4,400 identified errors (45 percent) were not corrected in a timely manner and 810 of 4,400 identified errors (18 percent) were not corrected at all.” [Emphasis Mine]

Again, I ask, where are the written procedures that form the standards of work which are used to hold employees accountable?  With an 18% error rate never being addressed by quality control, this means that veterans are being underpaid or overpaid for their benefits, and the VBA does not care that these issues are killing veterans.

Survived the VAPersonally, I experienced a VA overpayment that took more than 3-years to payoff.  Three years where my benefits were docked for an administrative mistake that was not found until the next decision was made on my claim several years after the original mistake was made.  What is worse, the mistake I paid for, was not a mistake at all, and the funds were later returned as another quality person found the error and corrected the documents accordingly, but the discovery took another VBA claim decision to catch, from beginning to end this issue of overpayment took three different decisions by the VBA and more than 8 calendar years from beginning to end.

Every single taxpayer in America has a personal stake in seeing the VBA do their jobs timely, efficiently, and correctly.  Every single veteran in America has a vested interest in seeing the VBA perform their roles with fewer rates of error than those reported by the VA-OIG.  Every elected official in America benefits in some way from the decisions of the VBA and should be able to demand higher quality decisions, better performance, and more transparency from the VBA.  Consider, if the problems of performance are this bad for a spot check analysis by the VA-OIG, how bad are the real numbers?

The VBA was also investigated for improper payments to schools through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program (VR&E) to the tune of $554,998.  Most of the errors were in transcribing numbers and the electronic program did not raise any alerts or attempt to rectify the problems, and no quality control system is in place to protect against human error.  The VA-OIG investigatory scope included 1.8 million payment transactions from 01 Jan 2014 to 30 Dec 2019.  While this is a much better error rate; the fact that the technology and the work processes were not catching these errors timelier, which means more billing issues, more wasted resources, and more problems for the VA, the VBA, the VR&E program, the taxpayer, the colleges and universities, and the impact goes on and on.

The VBA was also recently inspected for failing to accurately decide service-connected heart diseases.  The root cause was the questionnaire developed to ascertain what and when regarding the heart diseases experienced.  Six months, 01 Nov 2018 through 30 Apr 2019, were selected and 12% of the claims were improperly decided which totals $5.6 Million in improper payments where a veteran either received too much or too little for their claim.  Necessitating repayments or backdated payments once new and material evidence was procured to force the VBA to make a new determination.  Inaccurate decisions on claims involve a lengthy appeals process, expenses for testing, and the veteran is always responsible for the mistakes made on their claim.  Thus, the exasperation of these mistakes on the families, friends, and communities of the veteran involved in a VBA mistake.

When the VA-OIG finds errors made by the VBA the veterans affected are not notified that the VBA made an error in their determinations.  The VBA does not form a task force to evaluate these errors and correct them internally unless money is owed and then the collections department is left to muddle through the decision, not the VBA.  Thus, when veterans ask for transparency in the VBA processes, we are asking for the VBA to own their mistakes, fix the problems they are creating, and correct the errors in a timely fashion.  It should not require new and material evidence to trigger the VBA to make a new determination when the VBA made the original mistake in determining eligibility in the first place!

All because the quality controllers do not have written procedures to measure standards of performance against.  All these errors are due to improper organizational design and old computer systems, which are ready-made excuses for not performing work in a timely and efficient manner.  All because the leadership fails to delegate, monitor, observe, and function.  Why are the leaders missing, because they are all in meetings, all day, every day, and not at their desks!

Military CrestsJust like the labor union provided bumper sticker proclaims, “SAVE the VA!” [Emphasis in original], it is time to “SAVE the VA!”

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

The Power of Tiger Teams – Shifting the VA Paradigms

I-CareA key aspect of Tiger Teams is their ability to stress test, beta test, and routinely check how operations are performing and recommend changes from the position of the customer.  Recently the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – Office of Inspector General (VA_OIG) investigated a critical piece of the Mission Act of 2018, the health information exchanges.  While the VA-OIG received useful and valuable information from the VA and the community provider side, the customer/patient side was not included. From experience, I can affirm this is broken!

Recently, a veteran needed emergency care and received that care through the community providers under the Mission Act of 2018.  The records from the community care provider never transferred to the VA, the billing has been a mess of letters and notifications, and the patient’s issues were never followed up with the VA provider until the patient called and made it an issue.  One of the main selling points for community providers was to share electronic health information easily with the VA, which included notifying the primary care providers when a patient was seen in the community.  This aspect remains a “pie-crust promise” as well as a frustrating issue for patients and VA providers alike.

Before the Mission Act of 2018, if the veteran patient was sent to a community provider, the patient transferred manually all records to and from the VA and the community provider.  Allowing for lost records, duplicated records, and a host of problems in bureaucracy.  One of the issues the veteran experienced in seeking community care was the historicity of medical records to reduce costs and not duplicate tests; however, the community provider was never able to obtain that historicity and the emergency room costs were greater for the VA.

Thus, the need to operationally check the system, processes, and patient experiences using Tiger Teams.  A Tiger Team is a group of experienced people who interact with the business as customers, who have been granted the authority to make changes and see those changes implemented.  These are a selected group who work from a central office and are dedicated to improving business performance.  While I applaud the progress made with conforming to the Mission Act of 2018, there remains significant work in the patient experience to be completed and currently, the situation is not the roses and rainbows the VA-OIG is portraying.

ProblemsTiger Teams are also helpful in another way, that of “bird-dogging,” or acting as the researchers, and developers of ideas towards making improvements.  The VA-OIG recently brought to light that the VA needs to expand retail pharmacy drug discounts.  With the number of prescriptions filled by the VA hourly, the fact that the VA does not have volume discounts was surprising, but unfortunately, not unexpected.  The VA-OIG estimated that of the $181 million spent on retail drugs in fiscal year (FY) 2018, $69 Million would have been saved.  From the VA-OIG report:

“VA is one of four federal agencies eligible by law to receive at least a 24 percent discount for prescription drugs purchased for its facilities and dispensed directly to patients. However, for prescription drugs purchased through retail pharmacies for beneficiaries, VA pays the higher average contracted wholesale price because it does not have the authority to require drug manufacturers to provide the drugs at discounted prices.”  [Emphasis Mine]

Unfortunately, the program inspected for savings on retail pharmacy prescription was but one of several VA drug programs lacking statutory authority to save the taxpayers from being gouged on prescription drugs dispensed through retail programs at the hands of the VA.  Hence, the findings are surprising, but not unexpected.  How long before the VA secretary will collaborate with the Office of Regulatory and Administrative Affairs to pursue whatever changes are required to give VA the appropriate legal authority to purchase all prescription drugs through retail pharmacies at discounted prices?  At the tune of one program saving $69 Million a year, the benefits add up in a hurry.

How would Tiger Teams help in this situation; by doing the legal leg work, establishing relationships, initiating inquiries, and discovering all the other programs where the statutory authority is missing to close a gap and save money.  While the VA Secretary is responsible, delegating this authority to a Tiger Team saves time and improves the patient and taxpayer experiences.  This is why the Tiger Team must work from the VA Secretary’s Office, endowed with the power of the secretary, to make and affect change for the good of VA.

Leadership CartoonFinally, the power of Tiger Teams is also manifested to the VA in another way, returning to a situation after the VA-OIG has made recommendations to ensure compliance occurs.  Another recent VA-OIG report shows that after a scathing VA-OIG inspection, the Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), was still out of compliance in their internal quality control procedures, systems, and processes.  While some improvement had been made to spot errors, the procedures and processes that allowed those errors to occur were receiving zero attention by the internal quality inspectors.  Which is akin to noticing the horse is out of the barn, but not shutting and locking the door to keep the horse in the barn.  There is no valid excuse for the VBA quality controllers to not have been doing their jobs since the last VA-OIG Inspection.

The Tiger Team, with sufficient and specific authority, has the power to cut through the excuses, the red tape, and the intransigence of federal employees to root out the why, and establish a path to correction.  Yet, the VA Secretary is not using the Tiger Team concept as a tool to effect change, power compliance, and intervene to improve the veteran experience with the VA, the VBA, the VHA, and the National Cemetery.

Suggestions for improving the processes at the VA continue to include:

  1. Establish forthwith a roving Tiger Team, provide these employees with proper authority, and set them to work fixing the VA.  Allow the Tiger Team to establish flying squads inside the agency, hospital, medical center, etc. to report back on compliance issues, and any pushback they receive in correcting errors.
  2. Cut the bureaucracy that intransigent employees are using as a tool to stop or slow down change. The VA’s internal bureaucracy is the tail that wags the dog and since it is out of control, it requires an external force to regain control and proper order.
  3. Imbue the Tiger Team with an active mission statement, purpose, and organizational design. The Tiger Team is an active, not passive, tool that requires people dedicated to making change and seeing results.

VA SealNever has the axiom, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” been less true.  The VA is broken and desperately needs fixing.  With the help of those dedicated VA Employees, the proper leadership, and a Tiger Team to aid, the VA can be fixed and fixed quickly!

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Tiger Teams – A Potential Solution to VA Issues: An Open Letter to Secretary Wilkie

I-CareTo the Honorable Secretary Robert Wilkie
Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington D.C.

Dear Sir,

For almost a decade, I have read and studied the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from the position of patient, employee, concerned citizen, and now as an organizational psychologist.  During this time, I have read many Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) investigation reports, and yearned to be of fundamental assistance in improving the VA.  I have an idea with potential for your consideration, “Tiger Teams.”

In the US Navy, we used “Tiger Teams” as “flying squads” of people, dedicated to a specific task, and able to complete work quickly.  The teams included parts people, technicians, specialists, and carried the authority of competence and dedication to quickly fixing whatever had gone wrong during an evolution, an inspection, or even in regular operation.  It is my belief that if your office employed a “Tiger Team” approach for speedy response, your job in fixing core problems the VA is experiencing would be easier.  Please allow me to explain.

Tiger TeamThe VA-OIG recently released a report regarding deficiencies in nursing care and management in the Community Living Center (CLC) at the Coatesville VA Medical Center, Pennsylvania.  The inspection team validated some complaints and were unable to validate all complaints because of poor complainant documentation.  Having a Tiger Team able to dispatch from your office, carrying your authority, would provide expert guidance in rectifying the situation, monitoring the CLC, and updating you with knowledge needed to answer the legislator’s questions regarding what is happening.  The VA-OIG found other issues in their investigation that were not covered under the scope of the investigation, leaving the VA-OIG in a difficult position.  Hence, another reason for a Tiger Team being created, to back stop and support the VA-OIG in correcting issues found outside their investigatory scope.

Fishbone DiagramFor a decade now, I have been reading how the VA-OIG makes recommendations, but where is the follow-up from the VA-OIG to determine if those recommendations are being followed and applied?  Too often there is no return and report feature built into the VA-OIG investigation, as these investigators just do not have the time.  Again, this is what a Tiger Team can be doing.  Taking action, training leaders, building a better VA, monitoring and reporting, building holistic solutions, and being an extension of your office on the front lines.  Essentially using the tools from your office to improve the operations locally, which builds trust between the patients and the care providers, building trust between the families and the VA, and delivering upon the Congressional mandate and VA Mission.

Another recent VA-OIG report also supports the need for a fast response Tiger Team.  Coordination of care and employee satisfaction concerns at the Community Living Center (CLC), Loch Raven VA Medical Center, in Baltimore, Maryland.  In geographic terms, this incident is in your backyard.  While the VA-OIG inspection was rather inconclusive, and recommendations were made, it appears some things are working in this CLC and other things are not working as well as they should.  By using a Tiger Team as a flying squad, intermittent and unannounced inspections by the Tiger Team can aid in discovering more than the VA-OIG could investigate, monitoring the situation, and reporting on progress made in improving performance.

As an employee, too often the director of HAS would claim, “That problem is too hard to fix because it requires too many people to come together and agree on the solution.”  Or, “The solution is feasible, but not worth the effort to implement because it would require coordination.”  Getting the doctors and nurses talking to and working with administration is a leadership role, providing support to leaders is one of the best tools a Tiger Team possesses one authority is delegated.  The Tiger Team presents the data, presents different potential solutions, and the aids the leadership locally in implementation.  As an employee I never found a problem in the VA that could not be resolved with a little attention, getting people to work together, and opening lines of communication.  Thus, I know the VA can be fixed.

Root Cause AnalysisThe Tiger Teams need to be led by an organizational psychologist possessing a Ph.D. and a personal stake in seeing the VA improve.  The organizational psychologist can build a team of like-minded people to be on the flying squad, and these team members should be subject matter experts in VA policies, procedures, and methods of operation, and should change from time to time.  I have met many people from the VA who not only possess the passion, but are endowed with the knowledge of how to help the VA, and I would see the VA succeed.  Yet, I am concerned that the VA is not changing, not growing, and not developing the processes and procedures needed to survive, and this is damaging the VA, which leads to wasted money and dead veterans.

Why not have a flying squad for each VISN, who can meet to benchmark, compare notes, and best practices.  Who work from home and visit the local offices in the VISN, reporting directly to your office with a copy to the VISN leadership.  Whose job is to build the Tiger teams needed to oversee, provide expert support, and practical analysis.  The idea is to help you gather real time data, improve implementation of VA-OIG recommendations, and meet the demands of Congress.  If a Tiger Team, with the functioning Flying Squad, can save one VA-OIG inspection in each VISN, by improving that VISN, medical center, CLC, etc. before it becomes a major problem on the sSix O’clock News, then the Tiger Teams have paid for themselves.

All veterans know of the Phoenix VA Medical Center debacle, where veterans died while waiting for appointments.  I fully believe that had the VA Secretary had a Tiger Team in place, the root causes of that incident would have triggered the necessary flags to save lives and avoid or mitigate the catastrophe.  Flying squads are the Tiger Team in action, and action should be the keyword for every member of the team.  The mission of the Tiger Team should be to find and fix root causes, repair trust, and implement change needed to improve VA operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the National Cemeteries.

The VBA is especially vulnerable, and in need of outside resources to support change.  Recently the VBA was involved in another scandal involving improper processing of claims for veterans in hospital over 21-days, resulting in millions of dollars either overpaid or underpaid to the veterans.  Training, managerial oversight, and proper performance of tasks was reportedly the excuse the VBA used, again, to shirk responsibility.  Tiger Teams can provide the support needed to monitor for, and encourage the adoption of, rectifying measures and VA-OIG recommendations, not just at the VBA, but across the full VA spectrum of operations.

Please, consider implementing Tiger Teams, from your office, assigned to a specific VISN, possessing the authority delegated to run the needed analysis, build support in local offices, and iron out the inefficiencies that keep killing veterans, wasting money, and creating problems.  I firmly believe the VA can be saved and improved, built to become more flexible, while at the same time delivering on the 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.”

I-CareThank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Dave Salisbury
Veteran/Organizational Psychologist

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Structured Incompetence – The Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress

I-CareThe Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is allowed the ability to govern themselves, provided they meet specific guidelines and legislated goals and directions.  The Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) was established to provide legislators and the VA with tools and processes to improve, as well as to investigate root causes, and make recommendations for improvement.  But, here is the rub, the VA-OIG has no teeth to help their recommendations hold the attention of those in charge to make changes.

In December 2014, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), passed Congress and was signed into law by the president; FITARA is a historic law that represents the first major overhaul of Federal information technology (IT) in almost 20 years. Since FITARA’s enactment, OMB published guidance to agencies to ensure that this law is applied consistently governmentwide in a way that is both workable and effective.  2014 saw the VA slow the loss of private data from the VA, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Data Breach is gaining momentum and will crest in 2015, and in case memory has failed 2014 saw an explosion in VA malfeasance get uncovered starting with the Carl T. Hayden VA Hospital in Phoenix, AZ.

December 2020 will mark the sixth anniversary of FITARA, and President Trump signed a five-year FITARA bill in May 2018.  The VA-OIG in reporting progress on FITARA at the VA has this to report,

“… The audit team evaluated two groups of requirements involving the role of the VA chief information officer during [the] fiscal year 2018. They related to the CIO (1) reviewing and approving all information technology (IT) asset and service acquisitions across the VA enterprise and (2) planning, programming, budgeting, and executing the functions for IT, including governance, oversight, and reporting. The audit team found that [the] VA did not meet FITARA requirements and identified several causes.”

The number one reason for non-compliance after almost six-years was, “VA policies and processes that limited the chief information officer’s (sic) review of IT investments and the oversight of IT resources.”  Not mentioned in the VA-OIG report is how many of these processes and policies had been enacted since 2014.  The VA’s own processes and policies reflect structured incompetence, making a ready excuse to be out of legal compliance with legislated obligations.  If this was a private business, and the legislated obligations were not being followed exactly, no excuse could keep the leadership team out of jail and the business in operation.  Hence, Congress why do you allow this egregious behavior by public servants?

On the topic of structured incompetence, foot-dragging, and legislated obedience, the VA-OIG issued a glowing report of compliance because the VA was found to be in compliance with three of the five recommendations from a VA-OIG inspection on the Mission Act from June 2019.  The progress made was on all aspects of the Mission Act except mandatory disclosure.  Why does this not surprise me; of course, the VA has had, and continues to suffer from, a horrible case of refusing to report, disclose, and communicate without severe prodding and legislated mandates.  Thus, I congratulate the VA on being in compliance with the Mission Act for the last three consecutive quarters on a total of three recommendations from the VA-OIG; this is a good beginning, when can we expect improvement on mandatory disclosure?  Structured incompetence relies upon disclosure malfeasance, collective misfeasance, and leadership shenanigans.

On the topic of structured incompetence, the VA-OIG reported that the Northport VA Medical Center in Northport, New York, prior medical center leaders did not plan effectively to address deficiencies in aging infrastructure.  Which is the polite way of saying, the buildings are old and maintenance has been creatively haphazard, so when steam erupts from fittings and contaminates patient treatment rooms with asbestos, lead paint, live steam, and other construction debris, a small problem becomes a multi-month catastrophe.  Thankfully, the VA-OIG reported no harm to the patients or patient care restrictions from this episode.  Unfortunately, the VA-OIG cannot hold the managers and directors of engineering services responsible.  Having worked in several capacities in engineering I am astounded at the following recommendation from the VA-OIG, and covered under creatively structured incompetence:

“… The OIG recommended that the medical center director develop processes and procedures for submitting work orders—including for notifications when work orders are assigned and reviewed for accuracy and consistency—to help the center’s engineering service prioritize work and manage [the] resource.”

Will the VA-OIG please answer the following questions, “Why is this the hospital directors’ job?”  You have an entire engineering plant, with a supposedly competent director to oversee engineering operations, why and how should the hospital director be focusing such extensive amounts of time on the job that rightly belongs to the engineering plant director?  There are several technology-based programs and options that can perform this work, and form reports automatically based upon performance by engineering staff in completing work orders.  Why is the VA-OIG recommendation not including an automated process to improve performance?  The lack of oversight in the engineering department is both creatively and structured incompetence, because the VA-OIG report recommended following the master plan, reporting progress to the master plan, and suggested that the director of the engineering plant needs to be doing the job they are collecting a wage to perform.

Behavior-ChangeOn the topic of creatively structured incompetence, we find the following from the Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  A veteran patient that spends more than 21-days in hospital for treatment is supposed to be placed on 100% disability, and be paid at the higher disability amount.  Those veterans with mental health concerns are supposed to have additional support to aid them in managing their benefits from the VA.

The VA-OIG estimated VA Regional Office employees did not adjust or incorrectly adjusted disability compensation benefits in about 2,500 of the estimated 5,800 cases eligible for adjustments, creating an estimated $8 million in improper payments in the calendar year 2018. The OIG estimated 1,900 cases did not have competency determinations documented for service-connected mental health conditions.”

Why is this another case of creatively structured incompetence, because every time the VBA gets caught not doing their job, the reason is training, reports not properly filed, and lack of managerial oversight.  I could have predicted these reasons for structured incompetence before the investigation began.  That managerial oversight, employees not filing proper and timely reports, and training not occurring for employees has been an ongoing and repeated theme in VBA incompetence since early 2000 when magically the VBA was behind in processing veterans’ claims for disability.  This theme stretches to the VBA inappropriately deciding claims for spine issues.  The same theme was reported in the VBA improperly paying benefits.  The list of offenses by the VBA is long, and the excuse is tiresome.  The VA-OIG reported:

Employees who processed benefit adjustments also lacked proficiency. They lacked sufficient ongoing experience and training to maintain requisite knowledge. This is also why employees were unclear on the requirement to document the relevant competency of veterans admitted for service-connected mental health conditions.”

ProblemsHow ironic that the root causes of a VA-OIG inspection would find people being paid to perform a job, but are not actually doing the job because they lack proficiency, training, managerial oversight, and are unclear on what they are expected to do in their jobs.

To the elected officials of the US House of Representatives and the Senate, the following are posed:

  1. If you hired a carpenter to enter your home, perform work, and you discover that the carpenter does not know the job they were hired and contracted to perform, what would be your response?  If your answer is to keep that non-working carpenter in that position, in your home, I must wonder about your intellect.
  2. How can you allow this structured incompetence to live from one VA-OIG report to the next? How can you justify this behavior at the VA?  How many other offices of inspectors general reports are reporting the same structured incompetence in Federal Employment and you are not taking immediate action to correct these deficiencies?
  3. Why should anyone re-elect you; when we the taxpayers endure this incompetence, paying you and them to abuse us. You were elected to oversee and manage that which we cannot; yet, you continually strive to perform everything but this essential role.  Why should we re-elect you to public office?

GearsThe following suggestions are offered as starting points to curb structured incompetence, improve performance, and effect positive change at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemeteries.

  1. Implement ISO as a quality control system where processes, procedures, and policies are written down. The lack of written policies and procedures feeds structured incompetence and allows for creativity in being out of compliance with legislated mandates.
  2. Eliminate labor union protection. Government employees have negotiated plentiful benefits, working 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 this The United States of America generally, and upon the seal of the Department of Veterans Affairs specifically.
  3. Give the VA-OIG power to enact change when cause and effect analysis shows a person is the problem specifically. Right now, the office of inspector general has the power to make recommendations, that are generally, sometimes, potentially, considered, and possible remediations adopted, maybe at some future point in time, provided a different course of action is not discovered and acted upon, or a new VA-OIG investigation commenced.  This insipid flim-flam charade must end.  People need to be held liable and accountable for how they perform their duties!
  4. Launch a VA University for employees and prospective employees to attend to gain the skills, education, and practical experience needed to be effective in their role. I know from sad experience just how worthless the training provided to new hire employees is and this is a critical issue.  You cannot hold front-line employees liable until it can be proven they know their job.  Employee training cannot occur and be effective without leadership dedicated to learning the job the right way and then performing that job in absolute compliance with the laws, policies, and procedures governing that role.  Training is a leadership function; how can supervisors be promoted and not know the role they are overseeing; a process which is too frequent in government employment.

I-CareI – Care about the VA!

When will the elected officials show you care and begin to assist in improving the plight of veterans, their dependents, and their families?

 

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

 

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

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Fiscal Insanity is not Fiscal Responsibility – Reports From the VA

I-CareConsider your home finances, you and your significant other are working hard for the paycheck.  Your significant other comes in and reports they have improperly paid the mortgage company, the electric company, the car loan, the gas company, and the credit cards over the last year to the tune of $100,000.  These funds are not recoverable, did not reduce your balances, did not pay ahead, did not apply to your account, and your significant other expects to be praised for improperly paying the bills.  What is your response?

The Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) released a report on how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) remains out of compliance with the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (2010) for fiscal year (FY) 2019.  The report is replete with the obvious, the VA refuses to be fiscally responsible for American Taxpayer dollars.  Consider the following from the VA-OIG report:

In FY 2019, VA reported improper payment estimates totaling $11.99 billion for 14 programs and activities, $2.74 billion less than the total reported in FY 2018 for 12 programs and activities.

The quote is supposed to be good news, and a major gain, and deserving of applause.  Except, two programs were added between FY 2018 and 2019, thus reducing the overall performance.  The VA-OIG report states something that should be obvious to every household in America, “Improper payments are any payments that should not have been made or were made in an incorrect amount.”  Please keep in mind, the VA is not being tasked with eliminating improper payments, simply following the legislation, and reducing those payments.  The VA has legislatively mandated targets they are “strongly suggested” to meet.

VA did not meet annual reduction targets for a program considered at risk for improper payments and did not report a gross improper payment rate of less than 10 percent for six programs and activities as required. VA satisfied the other four IPERA requirements.”

The VA-OIG inspection for improper payments was not an audit, does not demand full and open books to be reviewed by third-party auditors for accountability of taxpayer dollars, reading the VA-OIG report is simply looks like the VA, including the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemeteries, self-report compliance estimates for meeting the targets.

Wrapped up in the VA-OIG report is the following gem of bureaucrat complicity.

“… Identified that four programs and activities have been noncompliant for five consecutive fiscal years, and two activities were noncompliant for three years.”

Thus, further reducing the overall adherence to Congressional oversight and fiscal sanity in properly handling the American Taxpayer money.  The VA-OIG reported that the VA is required to submit to Congress plans to come into compliance, and it was considered good news that the VA was able to do this for two high-priority programs with a monetary annual loss of $100 Million; but overall, I have to rate the VA’s ability to self-identify and self-correct fiscal problems at a very low F-.  The audacity of the VA Bureaucrats to not even follow all the VA-OIG recommendations, on such a softball legislative requirement mystifies.  From FY 2018 to FY 2019, the VA refused to comply with a VA-OIG recommendation, and this same recommendation has been carried over into FY 2020 in the hopes that the VA will come into compliance.

Blue Money BurningReturning the original analogy, if your significant other was reporting these failures to comply, how long would that person remain a significant other?  Yet, somehow, we, the American Taxpayer, accepts this type of poor performance from government bureaucrats.  The legislation is not working to improve performance after 10 consecutive fiscal years of trying.  Leading to the following recommendations for immediate Congressional action.

  1. Order a full, open, and transparent audit of the VA.  I don’t care what is found in FY 2019, just perform a complete audit and bring all the books and budgets of the VA into a single source.
  2. Set mandates for compliance with hard deadlines to meet. Without accountability built into a system for improvement, you cannot expect improvement.  Deadlines insist upon compliance.
  3. Start holding actual people accountable for not acting fiscally responsible. The charade has to end, the suggestions for improvement should never have started, and you, the elected Congressional Representatives, are responsible for correcting the fiscal ship of state!
  4. Insist upon adherence through personal liability. If a bureaucrat cannot handle the position they have been hired to hold, they need to be removed.  Not coddled, not protected, not another paycheck!

Congress demands every business in America be held accountable to basic accounting practices; why then does the VA get a pass?

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Relieve the Suffering – I-CARE: Shifting the VA Paradigms

I-CareDuring my tenure as a medical support assistant (MSA) in the emergency room of the Albuquerque, NM VA Hospital, I took a class being offered on the new direction the VA customer service was going to embody called I-CARE.  I-CARE became my objective, as a customer service professional. As a dual-service/service-connected disabled veteran, I saw the abuses prevalent in the VA Hospital and wanted to change myself and provide mentoring to my co-workers in adapting I-CARE principles into their daily efforts.  Unfortunately, because of labor union interference, leadership failures, and supervisor efforts to counter I-CARE implementation, my efforts were discounted, denigrated, and derided until I was discharged from VA employment.  But, I-CARE remains a part of my commitment, my professional outlook, and personal commitment to customer service was forever changed by implementing the principles of I-CARE.

Leadership CartoonI write harshly about the crimes of the VA because I-CARE and deeply desire to see the VA bureaucracy changed, to witness the adoption of I-CARE into the daily efforts of every VA employee, and to see the VA leadership teams develop policies and procedures that will benefit the veterans, and relieve the suffering of veterans, their spouses and children, and live the VA mission of bearing up those who have born the pains of battle.

ProblemsI have seen veterans blithely refused prompt care because of the frequency that veteran had been seen, the lifestyle choices of that veteran, or simply because a charge nurse or doctor did not like the politics of the veteran as displayed by their clothing.  I have seen illegal actions taken to turn people away from care at a VA Hospital Emergency room by VA Police officers, charge nurses, and other nursing staff, and been powerless to stop these crimes because the hospital leadership refused to act, and became hostile to the employee’s reporting the problems.  I have witnessed leaders delete emails reporting problems as those emails were proof and evidence of crimes cannot be allowed to remain at the VA.  I-CARE about these issues; I report these problems, but because I-CARE I also provide solutions, easy fixes that could be applied and adapted for the relief of suffering and reduction of risk to the hospital.  My reports all were ignored while an employee, from the team leader to the director of Hospital Administration Services (HAS), to the hospital director’s suite, all sorts of deaf ears and crickets were in attendance.  I reported issues to the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) which is a geographic group of VA Medical Centers under common leadership; also, to no avail, crickets, and deaf ears.

I-CareYet, I-CARE; still, I-CARE drives me and motivates me to see change occur at the VA.  To right the wrongs, and rebuild the VA.  One of my early leaders at the NM VA Hospital said something very prescient, “If a civilian hospital did half-the things the VA Hospitals get away with, they (the civilian hospital) would have been shut down and the leaders imprisoned.”  Having witnessed a year of crimes personally, seeing the inability for change to occur due to leadership, watching talent wasted, and monitoring the revolving door of employees in the VA, I concur with that statement.  The leader who spoke had 25-years of civilian hospital administration experience, before coming to the VA, and the VA would only hire this well-educated, highly experienced person as a GS-7, an entry-level employee.

Image - Eagle & FlagIn the coming days and months, I will continue to write about the VA.  Using personal experience, patient experiences related to or personally witnessed, and the Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General investigation reports, as the reasons for the solutions I propose.  I-CARE, enough to stand as a witness that the VA in its current form cannot, and should not, be allowed to thrive any longer.  Change must come to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA; hospitals and clinics), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA; compensation and pension claims), and the National Cemeteries.  Thus, I witness my commitment to I-CARE and the VA.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Uncomfortable Truths: Department of Veterans Affairs, are you listening?

It was surprising that the Department of Veterans Affairs will automatically share health information with third parties without the veterans written consent unless the veteran opts-out in writing or submit a revocation in writing submitted in person or by US mail.  Especially surprising is that the official form for opting-out is not legally active until October 2019, and the deadline for opting-out, in writing, is 30 September 2019.  While this news if significantly troubling, let us define the full problem, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG).

I-CareOn 12 September 2019, the VA-OIG completed their investigation into the Beneficiary Fiduciary Field system (BFFS), who handle benefits payments for veterans and other beneficiaries who, due to injury, disease, or age, are unable to manage their financial affairs and are thus vulnerable to fraud or abuse.  The veterans affected are those who are the most susceptible in the veteran population, and the government agency charged with protecting, helping, and supporting these veterans is vulnerable to fraud and misuse.  In fact, the VA-OIG found that the BFFS, “… lacked sufficient controls to ensure the privacy of sensitive data and prevent fraud and misuse. Specifically, finding the VA’s Office of Information and Technology inappropriately set the security risk level for BFFS at moderate instead of high. Risk managers did not follow established standards and did not consider whether information for beneficiaries and fiduciaries stored in the system’s database was sufficiently protected.”

Yet, the VA is now making available to third-parties, the health records of veterans.  Does anyone else see a problem?  Previously I have written about the continuing risk of veteran’s files from being accessed by persons unknown, and how this problem does not slow, simply how the VA has stopped reporting how bad the problem continues to be.  Personally, I have been a victim of ID Theft from VA Data breaches three times.  I have had VA Employees surf my medical records and then use this data to discriminate against me.  I have witnessed blatant HIPAA violations by VA Employees without hospital leaders taking any action.  Now, the VA is going to “share” my medical record access with “interested parties.”  I have some concerns!

Just in case your attention was drifting due to fallacious impeachment proceedings, the VA inappropriately sole-sourced contracts for ambulance services in three separate Veteran Health Administration Regional Procurement Offices (RPO).  The significance of this event is evidenced in the lack of competition for government contracts.  Designed incompetence was the origination of this issue, the contracting officer claimed, “I didn’t know.”  The contracting officer, who must go to school to obtain authority to enter into contracts for the Federal Government, somehow “didn’t know” about the regulations and rules for sole-sourcing a contract.  I have some doubts!

In further news from VA-OIG investigations, we find another contracting officer who claims, “I don’t know,” to hide behind designed incompetence in sole-sourcing contracts.  From the VA-OIG inspection report, “15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million, were inspected to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The contracting officers in RPO West, who “misunderstood who the proper approval authority was.”  Are you kidding me?

Blue Money BurningThe VA-OIG reports, “when contracting officers violate federal regulation by failing to obtain the required approval for sole-source contracts, they exceed their contracting authority.”  Contracting officers work with the approving authority, how can they not “know” who they work for and how to obtain proper authorization?  The excuses are weak and inexcusable; as an operation professional, the first step in getting to know the business is to know who answers the questions, who has the authority, and where that person is located.  For contracting officers, the approving authority is the boss, either the employees do not know who they are working for, or there are significant issues in lines of authority, and both situations speak of phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.

Just like the Home Shopping Network is always claiming, “But wait, there’s more!”  RPO East, not to be outdone by RPO West, had the VA-OIG inspect “20 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO East totaling $41.4 million. The OIG found RPO East contracting officers did not obtain required approval before awarding 10 contracts worth about $14.2 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  If RPO West is suffering from “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership,” then RPO East is beyond saving under the current leadership, and I call upon Secretary Wilkie and his team to scrub RPO East leadership and start over under strict quality review teams to ensure compliance and correction.  I repeat, only for emphasis, this situation is inexcusable.  The contracting officers must attend school, must know the regulations, and must not “individually interpret” the purchasing rules, and they know this from the first second on the job.  I was made aware of sole-source contracting regulations, and I was not a contracting officer.

RPO West has the follow-through needed to boil someone’s blood.  “The VA-OIG reviewed 15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  I rescind my earlier comments about the ability to save RPO West, I call upon Secretary Wilkie to personally ax the leadership at both RPO East and West, to start on a clean slate the contracting officers, leadership, and then strictly observe and implement a quality control mechanism to protect the taxpayer.

People ProcessesSpeaking of “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.”  Please allow me to prepare the groundwork for the subsequent VA-OIG investigation.  To be a supervisor in the VHA, VBA, or National Cemetery, you first must work in the positions you will be supervising.  This information was passed during a job-interview by the hiring authority and confirmed by several VA directors since.  From the VA-OIG Report, we find, “a supervisor at the VA regional office in Boston, Massachusetts, incorrectly processed system-generated messages known as “work items.”  The supervisor, “incorrectly canceled 33 of 55 work items out of 110 reviewed (that’s a less than 50% accuracy), and improperly cleared another nine work items from the electronic record. Because of these incorrectly processed cases, VA made about $117,300 in improper payments to veterans or other beneficiaries, along with about $8,600 in delayed payments.”  Best of all, the supervisor claimed these work items were improperly handled because, “he did not intentionally process the work items incorrectly, and the errors were the result of working too quickly and misunderstanding procedures.”  You are the supervisor, you are in charge, you should know who to approach for guidance and clarification, you have caused significant harm to veterans who either are not being paid or now must repay funds improperly provided.  There is an obvious question here, “If the supervisor is less than 50% accurate, what is the accuracy of the supervisor’s team?”  While the VA-OIG cannot investigate this question, is the director investigating this question?

If the accuracy of claims handling personnel is less than 50%, how can any veteran be sure their claim has been handled properly?  Having been forced to repay funds to the VA, I can attest to the financial impact these over and underpayments cause for veterans.  When will these decision-making officers be held personally accountable for improper decisions?  Senators, members of the House of Representatives, what are you doing to support improving the VA, in conjunction with Secretary Wilkie?  From what I witness, not enough!

You're FiredFrom the files of “Not Enough,” comes another egregious example.  A patient in a psychological ward in the Philadelphia Pennsylvania VA Medical Center was killed because of a drug-to-drug interaction, were due to insufficient observation, insufficient monitoring, and inadequate action when the patient coded, and a veteran died at the hands of caregivers.  When a patient in a hospital ward, which is monitored electronically and physically, commits suicide, I become very agitated.  When any patient dies at the hands of the healthcare provider, I have officially lost my “cherub-like demeanor” and begin resembling a grizzly bear with a bum tooth, hemorrhoids, and woken too soon from my winter nap.  The VA-OIG Report states the following, “… providers did not monitor the patient for electrocardiogram changes or drug-on-drug interactions.  Staff and providers documented signs consistent with over-sedation but did not intervene, communicate directly with each other, or add team members on as additional signers to the electronic health record.  The facility did not comply with the Veterans Health Administration requirements for issue briefs, root cause analyses, and peer reviews.  The staff did not follow the facility’s observation policy.  Facility providers did not adhere to policies requiring discussion, documentation, and patient signed informed consents prior to initiating methadone treatment.”  The providers knew they had a problem, before the patient got into trouble, and did nothing!  In any civilian hospital, this is called malpractice; but in the VA Hospital system, “this is an unfortunate incident.”  While I am undoubtedly glad leadership acted to remedy this situation in the future; I am very displeased to note it ever occurred.  With all the publicity over the power of methadone as an opioid, with the technology to remedy these problems before the patient dies, I cannot accept this situation could occur in the first place!  This veteran’s death should never have happened and the fact that this veteran died at the hands of providers from over-sedation, is a testament to the incompetence designed into the VA processes that excuses accountability and rewards malfeasance.

Speaking of opioid medication problems, the VA-OIG inspected 779,000 VA patients prescribed opioids, and for 73% (568,670) of those patients there was an insufficient investigation by the primary care providers in consulting the state-operated prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to ensure over-medication did not occur.  The VA-OIG estimated that 19% of those files improperly handled placed patients at risk because of medications prescribed outside the VA Medical System.  With the constant harangue from the mainstream media over opioid addiction and deaths from opioids, a person might ask, where is the concern?  Why isn’t this a talking point in a Congressional Investigation to understand why, and then begin to implement changes to ensure the VA is not stained with more veteran deaths over opioids.  Finally, with an accuracy rate of less than 25%, it appears to me this problem needs immediate rectification using technology and quality control measures at the local level to improve adherence.

blue-moneyI would like to take a moment and thank the VA-OIG for stepping up to the plate and correcting pre-award contract pricing to save the American taxpayer $515 million because the contracting officer on 16 of 22 proposed pharmaceutical contracts was improperly priced.  In case you are wondering, the accuracy of the contracting officers was less than 75%.  I know of no industry, business, or service organization that can have a 75% or less accuracy rate and remains in business.  As a business operation and purchasing professional, these numbers appear to suggest that the contract officers are either intentionally neglectful, or they are counting on pre-award review to protect them from price gouging; both situations are inexcusable for a contracting officer for the Federal Government.

Thank you!As the Los Angeles Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (LA VOCREHAB) was recently featured in an article, I am pleased to see that hiring additional staff has improved performance, per the findings of the VA-OIG.  The VA-OIG Report found accuracy in spending money had increased, compliance, and helping veterans to gain employment had all increased since the damning report from the VA-OIG; thus, congratulations to the LA VOCREHAB program!

© 2019 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.

 

Tragedies, Travesties, and Uncomfortable Truths – Shifting the Paradigm at the Department of Veterans Affairs

For the uninitiated, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has three chief administrations the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery (NC).  The majority of the problems a veteran is going to experience originates in decisions from the VBA, which then influence care with the VHA.

I believe in giving credit where, and when credit is due; thus, please join me in congratulating the VBA for meeting a significant milestone.  From the VBA press release we find the following:

“On August 11th, VA updated portions of the rating schedule that evaluate infectious diseases, immune disorders and nutritional deficiencies. By updating the rating schedule, Veterans now receive decisions based on the most current medical knowledge of their condition.”

The reason this is good news stems from so many veterans leaving the military with problems caused in the service where the VBA has dictated there is no injury due to the rating scales, forcing the VHA into a treatment problem where the patient is concerned.  More on the rating scales issue momentarily.

I-CarePlease join me in mourning another death at the hands of the VHA, which is labeled by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) as “largely preventable.”  A patient in the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center was in a mental health unit and committed suicide.  Largely preventable is a vast understatement when hospital leaders only begin caring about the veteran committing suicide after the suicide, where training and policy adherence was not mandated prior to the suicide, and the lack of cameras and staff monitoring allowed for a patient, already having trouble and this trouble is known to the hospital providing treatment, to take their own life.  No staff monitoring every 15-minutes was occurring; why?  Why were the cameras non-functioning?  How long had these problems been known and nothing was being done to correct these discrepancies.

Let me emphasize a truth about suicide.  A person expressing desire to suicide is not weak or lazy, and they will not “find a way.”  Having had depression sufficient to consider suicide in the past, I can tell you from personal experience that friends help, talking openly and honestly helps, and the emotional burdens placed upon a family when a suicide is successful are tremendous, as well as the guilt the surviving family must overcome.  This veteran did not have to die, their death was “largely preventable,” and for their death to occur on VA property, in a mental health ward, remains a tragedy.  That the VHA dropped the ball and allowed, through leadership failures, non-working technical means, and training deficiencies, this veteran to die is disgraceful!

The VBA is committing travesties of justice every day.  Consider the following, in the past 15+ years since I left the US Navy, I have had discussions with veteran service officers (VSO’s) across the continental United States on my own claim, and while supporting other veterans with their claims.  A recent example serves to illustrate the problem.  A Spine Anatomyveteran has bulging disks in the cervical spine.  The MRI shows disk degeneration, stenosis, and other problems in the cervical spine.  The veteran has an “S-Curve” in the thoracic spine caused by carrying bottled gas containers from the pier into the ship.  There is stenosis and disk degeneration in the thoracic spine.  The lumbar spine has bulging disks, degeneration, and stenosis.  Three separate areas of the spine, three distinct injured areas, yet, the VBA calls the spine issues, “Lumbar strain.”

Any person who has taken human biology in K-12 education can tell that spine issues in cervical and thoracic are not “lumbar strain” and would not need “new and material evidence” to understand that the first decision was flawed.  Yet, for the veteran to obtain a rating for their spinal issues, they must find an orthopedic spinal specialist, not affiliated with the VHA, and get a letter of diagnosis detailing why these separate areas of the spine are not “lumbar strain.”  The current corporate medicine world, finding an orthopedic specialist will require a non-VHA doctor as a primary care provider (PCP) to refer the veteran to a specialist.  Without a significant cash investment, time investment, and replication of VHA completed tests, x-rays, and MRI’s, the veteran will not be able to obtain a letter detailing the issues sufficient to sway the VBA in correcting their initial judgment.

The veteran will be stuck between three bureaucracies, the VBA who is denying the claim for spinal injury, the VHA who cannot diagnose and document a problem sufficient to meet the VBA standards, and the corporate medicine outside the VHA.  Yet, anyone with a passing understanding of human anatomy and biology can logically make the leap that the spinal issues cannot all be lumped under “lumbar strain.”

I continue to ask, “What is a veteran to do?”  Many times, the veterans in this position are either unemployed or employed below their skill level because they are in pain, they have medical issues requiring treatment, and they cannot obtain the treatment needed because the VBA has not allowed a military service claim to be placed upon the medical records for the VHA to treat.  To chain medical professionals to a rigid and dead bureaucracy, by refusing their ability to diagnose a problem for another VA administration is, without a doubt, a terrible decision, and dangerous practice.  To refuse to investigate a medical problem, restricted breathing with chest pain because the pain is not related to heart and lungs remains a travesty and an abuse of the patient.

To the elected Federal officials, why are you not demanding improvement to the VHA and the VBA?  Why do veterans have to die in the care of the VHA before any improvement is made to the bureaucracy you created?  Where does a veteran go to obtain relief from the bureaucratic nightmare where the VBA and the VHA are refusing to help the veteran?  The tragedy in this entire article is that the VA cannot enforce policy adherence, controlling the risks to avoid incidents like those detailed, and demand better performance from the people and the systems that are supposed to help the veterans.  The travesty in this article is the policymakers between Secretary Wilkie and the front-line employees; who is helping the veteran navigate these rocky shoals and dangerous waters of government policy?

I have met some great VSO’s, employees of the VBA and VHA, and interviewed with phenomenal people working in the National Cemetery; yet, they all have the same problem, the millstone around their necks is the regulations, policies, procedures, and red-tape of the VA that has been designed to refuse help as the first response to every question posed.  Thus, as I have asked Senator Udall (D-NM) and Representative Haaland (D-NM), as well as countless other Federally elected officials between 1997 and the present, what is a veteran to do to obtain the help they need from the VA?  Who would the veterans approach for guidance and support?  When the VBA is demanding “new and material evidence” before acting to support a veteran, how does a veteran obtain this evidence?

I know of hundreds of veterans who were affected by an independent duty corpsman in the US Navy who threw records over the side of the ship to avoid being held accountable for bad decisions and patient abuse.  Because these records are not in the medical files, injuries sustained in the service are not documented, and the VBA will use this as an excuse to deny claims.  What is a veteran to do?  Where does the veteran go?  How does a veteran correct something that occurred beyond their control to obtain treatment for decades-old injuries?  You the elected officials allowed the bureaucracy to be built, you are responsible for correcting these issues experienced, what are you doing to affect change and support Secretary Wilkie in fixing the VA, and by extension the VBA, the VHA, and the NC?

The American people are watching how you treat veterans, and we are not pleased!

 

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the photos displayed.