The Perils of a Toxic and Inert Workplace Culture

DutyDandira (2012), in an epic discussion on the origins of organizational cancer, discussed how communication, among other things, breeds organizational cancer.  The author stated what should be obvious, but the government remains oblivious to government agencies and the body’s organizational cancer.  “Responsibility and authority: (the CEO/Executive Chief) he should have the power to hire and fire, especially those who continue to follow the old system of playing political games at the expense of the organization” (Dandira, 2012, p. 191).  Again, while the following is using the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the examples spread like thick peanut butter, or bathtub scum, across all government agencies and NGOs.

Wasting TimeFrom the Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector of General (VA-OIG) reports, we find:

Michael Wibracht of San Antonio, Texas, the former owner of several construction companies, defrauded the United States by obtaining government contracts under programs administered by the Small Business Administration for which neither his nor his co-conspirators’ companies were eligible. One co-conspirator, Ruben Villarreal, also of San Antonio, pleaded guilty on Nov. 20, 2020, to participating in the same conspiracy. “The defendants conspired to fraudulently obtain multi-million dollar government contracts under a program designed to benefit service-disabled veterans,” said VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal. “These guilty pleas send a clear message that individuals and companies who defraud the government contracting process for service-disabled veterans will be held accountable.”

VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal, you are 100% incorrect!  Holding third-party contractors responsible for defrauding the VA does not “send a clear message,” nor will any of the actual problems be addressed; hence the fraud will continue, and the taxpayer and veterans will continue to suffer.  A little research into this story reflects that no VA Employees, who had to have been aware of the schemes and aided and abetted the schemes, have been held accountable for dereliction of duty.  Thus, the fraud will continue, and frankly, I wish you would learn this particular lesson!

VA SealDandira’s (2012) point is the hinge upon which fraud will or will not continue, does the executive heads at the hospital, VISN, and D.C. levels have the power and authority to act?  No; they do not, because Congress refuses to grant this power, while also refusing to scrutinize the government properly!  A convoluted mess that should have already been resolved, but the bureaucrats prefer designed incompetence and inertia to perform any work to improve the culture and accountability to the American Citizen and veterans.

Speaking of a culture needing work, the VA-OIG reports:

Matthew Pizarro, 32, of Stoughton, Massachusetts, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and eight years of supervised release for distribution of fentanyl, one count of distribution of 40 grams or more of fentanyl, and one count of possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack cocaine. Pizarro was indicted in October 2018 and has been in custody since his arrest in August 2018.”

LookSpeaking to the cultural problems allowing for criminal behavior to be accepted as part of the VA’s normal daily operations, consider visiting the following link.  That link will take you to incidents of failure to correct the criminal and toxic culture at the VA starting from 2013.  Not that the culture began in 2013, but that is as far back as the VA is willing to admit the culture extends from.  For example:

Lisa M. Hoffman, 48, a former pharmacy technician at East Orange VA Medical Center in New Jersey, was charged with stealing more than $8.2 million worth of HIV medication. Hoffman used her position to order, then steal, large amounts of HIV medication, which she later sold to an associate for cash.”

Detective 3While the last two examples of toxic culture include individuals, I am always impressed with the lack of integrity and the language games to spin a VA-OIG investigation report to more favorably report a Charlie-Foxtrot!  The VA-OIG investigated the use of virtual appointments for primary care during the COVID Pandemic.  Here’s the issue, before the pandemic, the only people regularly using virtual appointments were the psychologists treating individual patients who had the technology.  My Primary Care Provider (PCP) refused to use virtual appointments until last March.  Even then, my current PCP refuses to diagnose, treat, or even answer general health questions using virtual appointments.  The last three appointments using virtual technology have been technological disasters where the sound cut off and on, the picture cut off and on, random noise was broadcast, and nobody can explain how secure the technology is and how it meets HIPAA requirements.  The VA-OIG is crowing and magnanimous about the growth of virtual care appointments using VA Video Connect (VVC) in the VA.

Worse, the virtual appointments using the VVC technology do not come with technical support, so the veteran is left trying to fix connection issues without guidance and assistance.  Training for the VVC technology is either missing or obsolete, and frustration is the only regular VVC technology product.  Go ahead and crow VA-OIG; the veterans stuck using this garbage should have been part of your survey, and the fact that you refused to obtain the veterans’ input tells much about how respectful the VA is about their patients!

InertiaHere is a real-life example of a toxic culture with inert actors in action. It is reminding me of those “Priceless” MasterCard commercials from a few years back!

This management advisory memo identifies potential risks associated with the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) efforts to expedite adding new staff to meet increased demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) recognizes the tremendous pressure to hire staff to meet unprecedented needs quickly. To achieve VHA’s goal of bringing all new employees on duty within three days of making a tentative offer, VHA has modified or deferred tasks such as fingerprinting, background investigations, drug testing, credentialing, and preplacement physicals. The potential risks identified by the OIG may threaten VHA’s ability to safeguard veterans’ sensitive information and ensure its workforce is suitable for serving patients at VA medical facilities. The OIG organized these potential risks into three categories: (1) employees who do not have a completed fingerprint-based criminal history check may gain access to sensitive information and controlled substances; (2) delays in processing fingerprints add to a backlog of investigations; (3) onboarding tasks are deferred—such as drug testing and credentialing—that is not being centrally monitored to ensure completion. If realized, these risks could damage the trust veterans have in VA, keeping their information secure and meeting employee suitability standards; this memorandum raises issues for VHA to consider in determining whether vulnerabilities and related processes warrant further review. These include possible changes to centralize governance of deferred actions to improve oversight.”

Scared Eyes!Who says the veterans trust the VA to keep their data secure?  I am amongst thousands of veterans who annually have to track our identity because the VA continues to lose data through the most elementary methods.  Worse, the government is a sieve of escaping personal data from the VA to the OPM; the government keeps losing data.  These VA articles keep mentioning designed incompetence, want to see designed incompetence in action, “VHA has modified or deferred tasks such as fingerprinting, background investigations, drug testing, credentialing, and preplacement physicals… which is not being centrally monitored to ensure completion.”  Change processes, probably never even wrote down the procedures, and then refuse to monitor for completion.  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot on that Charlie Foxtrot, over!  Please excuse the military axiom; I am mentally blown away that this was approved, put into operation, and then left alone to fester!  When it is discovered that more criminals and nefarious people were hired, who gets the blame; nobody!  It will be COVID-19’s fault, not a mindless and spineless drone!

Detective 4I am personally aware and have reported both on this blog and to the proper authorities (not that they ever cared or did anything), the HIPAA, EMTALA, and other legal abuses of veterans in several VA Hospitals.  Without improvements in operations and providing authority to clean house for those in leadership positions, the VA’s problems will only worsen.  Please be aware; it is not for the lack of money or technology to pinpoint abuses and problems with employees; it is all the inertia of the leadership towards action and the toxic culture which allows and encourages pushing the boundaries that are killing the VA.  The VA requires a cancer operation, where the potential killing growths are removed and the body allowed to heal—healing through better leaders, better-written procedures and policies, and improved communication chains that promote catching the problems before the VA-OIG!

Reference

Dandira, M. (2012). Dysfunctional leadership: Organizational cancer. Business Strategy Series, 13(4), 187-192. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17515631211246267

© 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.

More VA Insanity – COVID Mask Policy – Denial of Service

I-Care02 March 2021 – Today, I got a secure message from the pulmonologist at the VAMC in Phoenix; he needs me to go to the hospital for a series of tests to understand why I cannot breathe.  Except, when he tried to get me into the hospital, he was told the VA Mask Policy would not be allowed to be “adjusted,” and the administration is the problem.  Worse, the local administration refuses to engage in discussion, refuses to write a cohesive and legal policy, and absolutely continues to deny service to veterans illegally.

I desperately need answers as to why the VA Hospital is allowed to act in this manner.  The denials of service are more than just a mask policy issue where COVID is concerned.  The actions of the Phoenix VAMC since June 2020 extend beyond simple bureaucratese where COVID masking is concerned.  Where are the elected representatives in scrutinizing the Phoenix VAMC?  Where is the media in demanding answers to the abuses being witnessed?  Where are the police in protecting the innocent?

InertiaTo actively work to refuse service, shut down dissenters, and muzzle those who honestly want to help and change the Phoenix VAMC into something worthy of respect and improve the care of the patients who try and obtain healthcare at the facility is atrocious behavior worthy of the harshest condemnation.  My medical chart clearly states I cannot wear a mask, the pulmonologist needing me to receive tests to understand why, is unable to obtain community care due to administrative fiat, and unable to get the VA to stop needlessly harassing, injuring, and arresting me because I cannot safely wear a mask.  All because the administrators would prefer to refuse service, deny care, and then complain that nobody is making their appointments.

2004, I started this journey with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); I had spinal problems, I was short of breath, I had neurological issues, and a host of other issues.  Yet, for more than 10-years, the VA refused care after I left the service with injuries because of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) treatment.  As soon as I finally get the VBA to act, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) begins to act like I am scum that was drug in off the streets.

LookWhat drives me crazy, I have been across the United States and seen the inhumanity of the VA Administration up close and personal too many times to think the problems are limited to only one VISN or another.  I have witnessed veteran patients and dependents worthy of the highest care denied service and then further abused by the VAMC refusing these people’s future care.  I have witnessed VA employees create rules to inconvenience a veteran patient, slow care, and deny service to a patient who had to travel 4-6 hours to the VA.  The VA-Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) relates more and more abuses by VBA and VHA staff monthly, where accountability is lost, responsibility rarely accepted, and the cycles of abuse continue because nobody in VA leadership will act!

Does anyone understand what this entails?  A patient, not me, with chronic pain and incredible service-connected injuries, is denied the ability to drop off a letter for his primary care provider, and the VA employee who would handle the letter anyway refused to accept the letter unless the letter was mailed.  The veteran drives four-hours to the VA Hospital every time he needs care and he works to maximize his time while at the VA taking care of as much business as possible.  The employee claimed that if the patient left the letter on that employee’s desk, the employee would throw it away.  The VA employee refusing to help a veteran was shortly promoted, moved to a less visible clinic, and the veteran who needed the help still has not received the support he needs.  Even after writing to the hospital administrator, the VISN administrator, and his congressional representative.  Why do I know so much about this case, I witnessed the scene and have been kept abreast of the trouble this veteran is having.

Survived the VAI met a veteran on social media who is in my same boat and cannot physically and safely wear a mask.  He has been actively denied service, even while bleeding, at the ER.  If President Trump had not signed the Community Care Act, which forces the VA to allow patients the VA refuses to see to access community-provided care, both of us would have been much worse than we are today.  Monday (01 March 2021), a nurse from my primary care provider called to relay information. The nurse refused to provide service, refused to answer questions, and then chose to become offended and disconnected the call.  Worse, I still have no idea why the nurse called, the purpose for the call, or what outcome will be derived from the call.  Why; because you cannot directly call your clinic and receive answers.  The phone chain games mean I call the clinic and get routed to a call center, they leave a message for the provider, and possibly within a week, I might obtain an answer from the provider.

Want to reach your clinic directly; send a secure message through the MyHealtheVet portal.  Then wait for an answer that can take as little as 24-hours, or as long as 3-months, if you get a response at all.  I have asked simple questions through both phone and secure messages and received atrocious answers, answers not fit to print, and answers that are a logical pretzel-making no sense but are regarded as “the policy of this hospital.”  A non-veteran I was casually talking to asked, “Why do you use the VA at all?”  The short answer is because if you do not use the VA, the billing nightmare to get the VA to pay for healthcare from military-connected injuries is a bloody nightmare!

VA SealCase in point, 30 June 2020, I checked into an ER for care.  January 2021, I receive a collections notice for the visit.  I called and asked why; apparently, the hospital submitted the statement to TriCare instead of TriWest, causing confusion and denial of service.  But, the VA “due to HIPAA” policies could not speak directly to the hospital, only to me.  I had to call the hospital and inform them of what the VA said.  The hospital’s billing department, the collections agency, and I are stuck between two bureaucracies at the VA, and I have an active collections problem hammering my credit.  These shenanigans are, but a small part of the regular issues all veterans are handed because the VA refuses to do their jobs creates rules and policies at whim to inconvenience, and flat out refuses to do their jobs!

Patients seeking care at the majority of VA Hospitals face no customer care, worse customer service, refusal to honor the job, disrespect of the patients, dependents, and veterans, and worse service for active personnel.  I have seen the VA’s actions, and I refuse to stay quiet about the illegal behavior, unethical actions, and the immoral treatment of veterans, active service members, and the qualified dependents seeking care and finding crass bureaucratic red tape.  There is no reason for this abuse of the patient, except as previously mentioned, the VA Hospitals can “get away” with bad behavior where non-government hospitals cannot.

Where do we go from here?

DetectiveWith the government being less than enthused with ending the COVID-Farce, with the media refusing to recognize a problem and assist in advocating for a reprieve, and with the elected officials failing to scrutinize the workings of the executive branch’s operations properly, I am not sure of the proper answer to this question.  Insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same things over and over, expecting different results.  The paradigm of government-provided healthcare is a pernicious fraud and desperately needs to be corrected.  But the answer is more than simple bureaucratic inertia found in many other government agencies.  The VA has built a special case for itself, and the solution will necessarily require new approaches and new thinking.

The belief that government is good for anything but injuring others remains an idea that needs to spread far and wide in an effort to reduce the harm caused by the government.  The American people require a higher return on their investment in the government through forced taxation.  Yet, the administers of government and the elected representatives hired to scrutinize the government fail to act, believe the bureaucrats over the citizen, and are part of the problem.

Fishbone DiagramRoot cause analysis points to inertia as being a prime candidate in the failures experienced and witnessed.  Inertia is a comfortable blanket to wrap yourself in when change is supposed to occur, but change scares you.  The hospital administrators refused to act because that would require a spine and written records scare the hospital administrators; especially those in Phoenix after two dead veterans’ scandals where responsibility pointed to people who possessed written records.  Hence, besides inertia is the fear of being held accountable because the written records exist.  Yet, because policies, directives, and processes are not being written down, behavior can worsen where the veteran patient is abused, and there is nothing that can be pointed to claiming the actions taken were inappropriate.

Detective 3Logic claims that if the VA denies service to a class of veteran patients, then another option for receiving care should automatically open.  However, the lack of written policies and the inertia of the employees causes the veteran patient a nightmarish cycle of needing care but not being able to access care.  Because the employees are following spineless leaders and inertia is better than sticking one’s neck out and acting differently from the pack.  Thus, plotting a path forward requires leadership and a willingness to document, change, and adapt, all of which appear anathema to the VA generally and the Phoenix VAMC particularly.

The VA-OIG just recently finished an audit of community care claims being handled by 3rd party contractors.  The results are fairly typical of the VHA and VBA using designed incompetence.

The OIG audit found that inadequate contract terms and VA’s lack of effective oversight contributed to claims processing inconsistencies and errors. The VA’s contract did not include standardized criteria for contractor employees to use when distributing and processing claims. Furthermore, the contract did not require contractor employees to follow VA’s Office of Community Care (OCC) claims-processing guidance. Although the contractor cannot be faulted for acting inconsistently with OCC guidance not required in its contract, the resulting inconsistencies mean VA lacks assurances that proper processes were used. VA also did not have an official quality reporting mechanism in place before February 2019.”

The VA-OIG report quoted above discussed how 13% of the claims were handled inappropriately, causing veterans’ problems and delays in processing for providers.  In Albuquerque, NM., I saw this firsthand.  The VA sent me to a community provider; the community provider filed all the proper paperwork and kept gathering more paperwork for the next three years.  Finally, when all the red tape was satisfied, ¾’s of the bills were too old to receive payment.  That provider went bankrupt trying to provide services to veterans because he could not get paid in a timely manner.  I was there for the full and abysmal treatment of this provider by the VA.

Detective 4The designed incompetence is galling and getting worse.  The VBA is the portion of the VA that makes claims decisions.  Recently the VA-OIG investigated the VBA specifically to check consistency to comply with skills certification for compensation and pension claims processors.  The results are a horror story of designed incompetence, failure to do the job, and trainers’ failure to train properly.  Of the 10,800 claims processors required to certify their jobs, 4700 were never tested from 2016-2019.  Of the 2,500 who failed the certification test, 1,900 did not have any repercussions, training plans, identified corrective action, or employer counseling.  Worse, the VBA failed to take any personnel actions on 98% of the population surveyed (10,800).  2018, as in the entire fiscal year of 2018, the certification tests were unavailable due to technical issues on the VBA’s intranet.  Meaning that effectiveness in 2019 to measure and certify was virtually useless!  Does anyone wonder why veterans are refusing to trust the VBA and the VHA?  Is the problem clearer that congressionally elected officials’ failures to scrutinize the government influence the employees’ behaviors for the worst?  How many claims have been improperly decided, wasting taxpayer time and money and the veteran’s time and money since 2016 by failing to certify to fill the roles and duties the American Taxpayer is paying them to fulfill?

Wasting TimeIt is imperative for profound and fundamental organizational change at the Department of Veterans Affairs to begin as soon as practical.  Worse, scratch the surface of any other government agency on the Federal or State level, and the same problems arise.  The same abuse of taxpayers, the same refusal to do the jobs hired to perform, and extensive cultures of inert slugs just punching time and wasting money until they can retire!

© 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.

Department of Veterans Affairs Chronicles of Shame

I-CareAs a veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stemming from military sexual trauma (MST), where a first-class petty officer jumped on my back and tried to rape me.  When I see the Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) reports on PTSD from MST, I pay close attention.  Since the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to deny my MST claim because MST does not happen to men, I get agitated when I see these VA-OIG reports repeating year-over-year with the same excuses and designed incompetence.  Designed incompetence is all about creating ready-made excuses for failing to perform correctly the role one has been hired or promoted to perform.  Consider the following:

“In 2018, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported that nearly half of disability benefit claims that were denied service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and were related to military sexual trauma were not processed properly.”

That is the first sentence of the VA-OIG report released on 08 December 2020 declaring that the improvements suggested by the VA-OIG in 2018 had not occurred.  The following statistics come directly from the report issued.

      • 18,300 claims or approximately 16% were processed incorrectly in Fiscal Year 2019
      • 118,000 claims were submitted

Why were the claims processed incorrectly; because of designed incompetence by the Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  From the report, we find the following five root causes, or excuses: emphasis mine.

    1. Most errors occurred because claims processors did not verify or ask veterans to provide the disorder’s cause, known as an in-service stressor.
    2. In other cases, claims processors did not request a medical examination, medical opinion, or clarification of inconsistencies in the examination as required.
    3. Claims processors made these errors because they did not fully understand PTSD stressor types and the stressor verification process.
    4. VBA’s Compensation Service did not mandate any national training for claims processors on these subjects except during the first year in the position.
    5. In addition, VBA’s procedures manual was not effectively organized to allow staff to locate this information and lacked specific guidance for some aspects of PTSD claim processing.

VA SealWhy are the causes of the problems considered designed incompetence, because they never change!  At the VBA, the processors all need constant training to remain current in their positions; but never receive the training.  The VBA never holds value-added training sufficient to train the employees on their jobs, but this remains the number one excuse to justify poor performance in VA-OIG inspections.  Failure to perform the job is also not a new excuse, where the VA-OIG reports are concerned.  Not understanding how to ask for help is also not new, and frankly astounds and mystifies observers that those hired remain employed when their performance clearly remains insufficient to the job expectations.  While it is unique to the VA to see a procedure manual, it is only natural and expected that the manual is poorly organized, poorly executed, hard to follow, difficult to find, and generally useless.  The VA is famous for this designed incompetence trick.

You say, “Big Deal;” everyone knows the VA is messed up, full of failures, and is generally known for poor performance.  Why this is a “Big Deal” stems primarily from the costs associated with poor performance.  An annual salary is paid for the processors, the adjudicator, and the entire chain of command, totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The veteran has to pay for lawyers and other services to appeal the original decisions, which take time.  The veteran has to pay for a third-party Nexus Letter to accompany the claim to declare the original claim was faulty.  All of this requires substantial time investments and other resources, all because the original work has to be duplicated.  How many times the claim is duplicated depends upon the processors’ abilities to do the job they were hired to perform.

Your car breaks down; the tow truck driver only secures your vehicle 84% before driving to the auto repair facility, is this satisfactory performance?  Your surgeon has an 84% success rate where his patients will live after surgery for tonsil removal, is this satisfactory performance?  You are in hospital; your nurse only gets your pain medication to you 84% of the time or is only 84% accurate in providing the right patient the proper medication; is this satisfactory performance?  Of course not, but for government employees, this level of performance is “award-winning.”

Military CrestsCongress mandates VBA claim error rates; there is supposed to be a quality assurance check to reduce the error rates.  Yet, with all the checks, the balances, and the quality assurance programs, the VBA continues to surpass the error rates and physically harms veterans due to their inefficiencies.  Yes; a failure rate of 16% is a “Big Deal!”

Want to know how bad the VA is managing your taxpayer monies; read the audit released 14 December 2020.  In that audit, you will find comments like the following:

      • The material weakness involving information technology security controls has been reported for more than 10 years.
      • VA did not substantially comply with federal financial management systems requirements and the United States Standard General Ledger at the transaction level, as required by the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act.
      • [The] VA’s complex, disjointed, and legacy financial management system architecture no longer supports stringent and demanding financial management and reporting requirements.
      • VA continued to be challenged [with] consistently enforcing established policies and procedures throughout its geographically dispersed portfolio of outdated applications and systems.

In light of the recent computer hacking issues the Federal Government is experiencing, knowing that the VA has dumped hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to patch and repair, and sometimes replace (sort of), legacy (old, expired, useless, insecure, unreliable, etc.) technology over the last 20-years, how is the VA able to keep getting away with these designed incompetence excuses?  Congress, when will you hold the administrator’s feet to the fire for making progress on these glaring issues?  Congress receives these VA-OIG reports and audits before they are made public, yet the elected representatives cannot take a moment to check this poor behavior.  Why not?

Police and Government Lines of CongruenceFor the first time in more than a decade of chronicling the VA-OIG reports, I am mentioning a monthly highlight (lowlight) condensed report.  This report is unique due to the insanity of criminal investigations mentioned, the results of audits, and the healthcare inspections.  When you have 18 defendants in a bribery scheme, where 15 plead guilty, who defrauded untold Millions of dollars in Florida, the problem is not so much with the employees, but the organization that allowed this to occur since 2009!  A noteworthy criminal investigation indeed.

The highlights (lowlights) of November 2020 also include a VA physician from West Virginia being indicted for abusive sexual contact and simple assault and a surgical supervisor in Northern Ohio who defrauded the VAMC of approximately $3.2 Million in two separate schemes.  Regarding financial audits and the importance of improving that ancient technology, a VA Fiduciary has been indicted for misappropriating government funds from Pennsylvania to the tune of more than $155,000.  Best of all, a husband and wife team from California, technical school owners, bilked the GI-Bill of more than $29 Million since 2015.

The criminal issues the VA is facing regularly are not a one-off issue, but an organizational design problem as the frauds, thefts, and malfeasance reported is ever only the very top 1% of the problem that is ongoing and systemic in the Department of Veterans Affairs!  The November 2020 report discussed an incredible number of canceled patient appointments because veterans and COVID mask mandates do not play well together.  Yet, the VA Federal Police cannot stop persecuting veterans for their physical inabilities to wear a mask.

Thus, where are the elected officials from the legislative bodies who possess oversight and funding responsibilities?  Where is the executive branch of government in correcting and demanding specific action from the legislative branch?  Where are the administrators at the Federal, VISN, and Local levels in performing their jobs?  The designed incompetence must cease forthwith to allow for practical changes to be made and the organizational design to be corrected.  For the VA-OIG to be forced to accept the same tired, lame, and detestable excuses, year-over-year is the epitome of abuse to the taxpayer and veteran alike!

The Duty of AmericansWorst of all, this condensed version did not even scratch the surface of the issues reported in just three VA-OIG reports.  Shame!  Shame! Shame!  Shame on the elected officials, Republican, Independent, and Democrat, who have allowed this problem to grow and done nothing!  Shame on the myriad of presidents who have done nothing but throw good money after bad, without demanding progress and holding real people responsible for real results!  Shame on every single VA employee who shirks their job for easiness to the pain and suffering of a veteran, dependent, or spouse!

© 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 images.
All rights reserved. For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:
https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

August VA-OIG Updates: More SHAMEFUL VA Conduct.

I-CareDue to personal issues with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), specifically the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Phoenix, AZ I fell a little behind in June/July/August of 2020.  As I work to clear the backlog of completed Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) reports from August, please keep in mind solutions to these problems are available. The failure of leadership to be held accountable, by the elected officials is staggering, and the lack of accountability and responsibility boggles the mind.  Without exception, I know the VA can be improved, developed, and saved.

August 2020 begins with an individual employee making a decision regarding healthcare decisions for a veteran at the Robley Rex VAMC in Louisville, Kentucky.  The VA has a process where individuals can be allowed to be surrogate decision-makers for a veteran who needs additional assistance.  This process works is legal and is a great tool for family and friends of veterans to play a significant role in the healthcare process of the veteran.  In this instance, the process failed, not because the process was bad, but because people did not do their jobs properly.

The VA-OIG assessed an allegation that providers permitted an individual with no legal authority to make medical decisions on behalf of a patient, and a host of other patient rights were trampled as documented.  “The patient experienced a three-week medical and mental health hospitalization with repeated episodes of confusion, agitation, and combative behavior. The patient was transferred to hospice care and died five days later.  The VA-OIG found that facility staff did not take the required appropriate steps to identify and confirm the eligibility of this surrogate.  The VA-OIG determined records did not contain sufficient documentation of physicians’ clinical assessments to support diagnoses and treatment decisions. Clinical communication and collaboration were inconsistent, insufficient, and negatively impacted the patient’s continuity and quality of care. Providers did not consistently document medication monitoring and oversight activities to ensure safe patient care. The patient’s transfer to hospice was completed without fully pursuing other diagnoses and treatment options and staff did not ensure the patient’s rights were upheld regarding involuntary admission and behavioral restraints. Facility leaders did not complete a thorough quality of care review to understand the reasons for the patient’s atypical hospital course and outcome” [Emphasis Mine].

Many times, the VA-OIG reports do not clarify all root causes due to employee privacy; however, from the report, the employees who repeatedly allowed the neighbor to make healthcare decisions were exceeding their legal bounds and made decisions that harmed the patient.  This veteran died and from the report, it is clear the veteran died confused, possibly due to medication changes, and the family was not notified in a timely manner because the neighbor, without legal and written authority, was allowed to make healthcare decisions for the veteran, even though there was written healthcare directives on file for a family member to make these decisions.  Utterly shameful behavior!

PatriotismThe Veteran Integrated Service Network (VISN), is a geographical grouping of VA Healthcare Systems, e.g. hospitals and clinics, under a combined leadership plan.  One of the tools the VA-OIG uses to monitor the quality of patient care inside VISN’s is called a “Comprehensive Healthcare Inspection Program (CHIP).  CHIP covers selected clinical and administrative processes all of which are deemed consistent with promoting quality patient care.  The CHIP occurs on a rotational 3-year periodicity and the focus is shifted slightly each 3-year cycle to, theoretically, encompass all administrative processes over time.  The VA reports the following are the specific areas that lead to quality patient care through administrative practices:

  1. Quality, safety, and value;
  2. Medical staff privileging;
  3. The environment of care;
  4. Medication management (specifically the controlled substances inspection program);
  5. Mental health (focusing on military sexual trauma follow-up and staff training);
  6. Geriatric care (spotlighting antidepressant use for elderly veterans);
  7. Women’s health (particularly abnormal cervical pathology result notification and follow-up); and
  8. High-risk processes (specifically the emergency department and urgent care center operations and management).

All of which is mentioned as an explanation providing details for the following VA-OIG inspection reports of CHIP received in August 2020.  A total of seven CHIP reports were received in August recording performance from inspections carried out.  These reports, while somewhat individualized for the specific VAHCS, reads like a carbon copy.  Repeatedly written procedures for standard operation are missing, staff training is inadequate or antiquated, risk analysis is not able to be competently and correctly conducted, patient safety issues abound, and the proper utilization of management processes remains glaring!

Root Cause AnalysisThe CHIP reports are so repetitive in nature, the VA-OIG recommendations are grouped, conveniently, into the eight administrative areas listed above.  According to proper management techniques, the VA-OIG then “encourages” the leadership team to select one or two areas for improvement and focus their efforts on leading change in those areas.  For example, if the VAHCS wants to improve in risk analysis, the leaders can begin by promoting training on properly conducting risk analysis online, hold meetings to review risk analysis procedures and begin to train and develop staff on improving n this area.

However, here is where reality meets theory, without written standard operating procedures risk analysis cannot be completed properly.  The bureaucracy protects itself and will thwart the implementation of written standard operating procedures as this removes designed incompetence that keeps the bureaucrat in power at the VA.  Thus, the root cause of improving root cause analysis is the lack of written procedures that measure performance against a single written standard.

CHIP Report after CHIP Report the same issues arise, are noted, recommendations from the VA-OIG are documented, and the same response is supplied; this represents the epitome of designed incompetence and the root of the problem the VA is facing.  Recommendations for improvement have been repeatedly provided and change can occur; but, not without dedicated leadership, not management, to thwart the bureaucratic quagmire that the VA has fallen into.

Leadership CartoonAnother regular entry on the CHIP reports is the following: “Employee satisfaction scores revealed opportunities for the Associate Director for Patient Care Services to improve employee attitudes towards senior leaders.”  Here is the problem, how many of the “senior leaders” are less than managers, promoted beyond their maximum level of incompetence, solely because they were the next warm body in line; too many!  When staff training is a repeated issue on CHIP reports, one must ask how employees are being measured?  Where are the written scorecards that reflect a process that was used to measure employee performance fairly and equitably?  Was the employee trained on how to perform their role according to the standards published?  Do the scorecards reflect that all employees have been trained, measured, and reported equally?

Guess what, since staff training remains a consistent problem, the staff leaders are the problem!  A major part of “Quality, Safety, and Value” is “Leadership and Organizational Risks.”  A lack of training in properly, timely, and correctly performing one’s role as hired is both a leadership and an organizational risk.  Failing to train employees is the absolute worst comment a leader should be informed of by a third-party inspection team.  Yet, the training of staff is consistently the root cause after a lack of standardized operating procedures.  Every mid-level supervisor, trainer, manager, director, etc. titled individual at the VA should be embarrassed when told their staff is untrained; but, it appears these same leaders do not care!

The Duty of AmericansHow can a person draw the conclusions that the VA appears to not care about improvement, or that the lack of caring is rampant across the entire VA structure; look no further than the site visit VA-OIG inspection report of the Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  The deputy undersecretary for field operations expected regional office managers to be aware of issues raised in other regional office site visit reports, but there was no written policy for addressing frequently identified errors.  So, the mid-level regional office managers must be told to investigate internal websites to gather lessons learned and apply those lessons in their regional offices.  What an incredibly inept excuse; shameful conduct by a senior leader, and how much worse does this attitude become as it filters down to the troops?  The behavior that claims a new policy is needed to improve performance is utterly bereft of logic and demonstrates the lackadaisical attitude being discussed.  Then these same leaders wonder why their staff is disengaged, disconnected, and distrusting of leadership; unbelievable!

One of the first lessons I learned in becoming a business professional was, “If you have to write your ethics down, you have already lost.”  The VA policies on ethics, ethical conduct, and ethical behavior are voluminous, trying to cover every detail, every loophole, every issue, and mostly the VA-OIG reports on ethical breaches reflect individual poor judgment at best, and designed incompetence at worst.  Yet, still, the VA tries to implement ethics without a source, moral behavior without a purpose, and the individual employee is left with plenty of excuses for not behaving in a properly ethical manner.  This is the topic of another article; but it must be made clear here and now, ethical lapses continue to abound at the VA.  From the nurse not giving drugs to patients and selling the drugs on the street, to hospital directors not disclosing what appears to be a conflict of interest, the VA remains afloat on a sea of ethical violations.

The remaining reports in August reflected an investigation that the VA-OIG was unable to substantiate due to a lack of reports filed in a timely and proper manner.  More designed incompetence on the part of the VA.  Also included in these final reports were more repetitions of issues discussed where staff training was the root cause for ethical violations, failure to properly perform duties as hired, and staff training was the problem with adherence and compliance issues.

The disconnect is obvious, and the direction forward is clear.  Hospital Directors, write the standard operating procedures, using the resources of how the work is performed currently as the baseline.  Then begin correcting and amending the written procedures over the following year to improve performance to a written standard.  Once the written standard is completed, e.g. the baseline, begin training of staff.  You cannot measure individual performance without standards, and standards cannot be followed without written operating procedures for conducting business.

Behavior-Change© 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/

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/

Insane Abuse – The VA Edition: The Leaders of the VA Must Shift the Paradigm

I-CareDuring new hire training for working at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) New Mexico Medical Center (NMVAMC), the first day contains a lot of warnings about what you can and cannot do as a Federal Employee.  Annually, there are mandatory classes that must be passed to remind an employee of their obligations as a Federal Employee.  Leading to a question, “How could an attorney for the Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of General Counsel (OGC), be allowed to break the law for eight years?”  The department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) investigated after a second complaint about the same person was received, and only then did the OGC take action.  The attorney in question was released from government employment, but where is 8 years’ worth of wages being requested back?  Did the attorney lose anything other than an undemanding job and title where they could be paid for not working for the Federal Government while advancing their private practice, violating ethical laws, and breaking several Federal Statutes along the way?

What this attorney has done is insane, it is an abuse of trust, and for it to go reported and not acted by the senior leaders at OGC represents inexcusable abuse!

ProblemsOn the topic of insane and inexcusable abuse of the VA, the VA-OIG investigated the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System in California and found a supervisor in an “other than spouse” relationship with a vendor and they used the VA property to improperly conduct business on contracts the supervisor oversaw.  These actions are a clear and blatant violation of the Federal Statutes on contracting as a Federal Employee, even if these consenting adults were married, it would remain illegal, unethical, immoral, and inexcusable!  Yet, because the supervisor quit during the investigation, the VA-OIG has no power to take any action.

Federal Employees are blatantly breaking the law, abusing the trust and honor of their stations, flagrantly flaunting ethical, moral, and legal regulations with impunity.  Why?

From the VA San Diego Healthcare System, California, we find another VA-OIG inspection. Staff manipulated time cards for seven fee-basis medical providers to pay these individuals on a salary or wage basis rather than a per-procedure basis.  While the medical center took appropriate action and no VA-OIG recommendations were made, the question remains, “Why was this behavior allowed in the first place?”  Another supervisor, improperly acting in their office, and abusing the VA; this behavior is inexcusable!

moral-valuesThe VA-OIG performed an audit, also referred to as a “data review.” “The data review consisted of a sample of 45 employees and found the employees were paid an estimated $11.6 million for overtime hours for which there was no evidence of claims-related activity in the Fee Basis Claims System in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, representing almost half of the total overtime paid. Significantly, 16 of the 45 employees each received more than $10,000 in overtime for hours during which there was no claims-related activity.”  The Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Community Care (OCC) is backlogged and this is leading to late payments to providers, delays in care, and is generally a bad thing.  However, the sole reason for the overtime being abused was due to a lack of processes, poor supervision, and training.  These are the same three excuses that are used by the Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and is designed incompetence at its most disdainful and egregious level.  Worse, this was a sample of employee misconduct on overtime pay.  How many more cases are floating in the OCC that were not included in the audit that will pass unresearched because the VA-OIG did not refer the cases for disciplinary recommendations?

The VA-OIG cannot be everywhere and clean every hole in the VA organizational tapestry.  This is why supervisors and leaders are in place to execute organizational rules, regulations, policies, and monitor employee performance.  Why are the supervisors and mid-level leaders not being held accountable for failing to perform their jobs?  If overtime pay is going to be clawed back from the employee, the managers, team leaders, and supervisors need first to write and train to a policy standard.

Root Cause AnalysisThe VA-OIG conducted a comprehensive inspection of the Eastern Kansas Health Care System, Kansas, and Missouri.  The findings are startling for several reasons, one of which being the deficient lack of leadership leading to poor employee satisfaction, patient care issues, lack of knowledge in managers and supervisors, and minimally knowledgeable about strategic analytics.  Essentially, there is a lack of leadership in this healthcare system.  The director has been working with a team for 2-months, but the director has been in charge in 2012.  Leading to questions about long-term staffing replacement, staff training, building the next generation of leaders, and why this long-term director can brush off the criticisms of leadership failure because the team has only been in place for two months at the time of the inspection.

Again, the VA-OIG audited a system and found a lack of training, lack of oversight, lack of leadership, and made recommendations to “close the barn door, after the horses got out.”  From the VA-OIG report we find:

“The VA-OIG found that VA lacked an effective strategy or action plan to update its police information system [emphasis mine]. In September 2015, the VA Law Enforcement Training Center (LETC) acquired Report Exec, a replacement records management system, for police officers at all medical facilities. Inadequate planning and contract administration mismanagement caused the system implementation to stall for more than two years [emphasis mine]. LETC spent approximately $2.8 million on the system by the fiscal year 2019 [emphasis mine], but police officers experienced frequent performance issues and had to use different systems that did not share information. As of April 2019, only 63 percent of medical facility police units were reportedly using the Report Exec system, while 37 percent were still using an incompatible legacy system. As a result, administrators and law enforcement personnel at multiple levels could not adequately track and oversee facility incidents involving VA police or make informed decisions on risks and resource allocations. The audit also revealed that information security controls were not in place for the Report Exec system that put individuals’ sensitive personal information at risk [emphasis mine].”

Behavior-ChangeNo controls, no direction, no strategy, no tactical action, losing money, and not even scraping an F in performance.  The repetition in these VA-OIG investigations is appalling!  Where is the accountability?  Where is the responsibility and commitment to the veterans, their dependents, and the taxpayers?  Where is the US House of Representatives and Senate in demanding improvement in employee behavior?  Talk about a culture of corruption; the VA has corruption in spades, and no one is taking the VA to task and demanding improvement.

The VA is referred to as a cesspit of indecent and inappropriate people acting in a manner to enrich themselves on the pain of veterans, spouses, widows, and orphans.  There have been comments on several articles I authored which would make a non-veteran blush in describing the VA.  These actions by supervisors and those possessing advanced degrees do not help in trying to curb or correct the poor image the VA has well and truly earned.  A behavior change is needed, culture-wide, at the VA for the tarnished reputation of the VA to begin recovering.

Only for emphasis do I repeat previous recommendations for a culture-wide improvement:

  1. Start a VA University.  If you want better people, you must build them!  Thus, they must be trained, they must be challenged to act, and they must be empowered from day one in the classroom to be making a difference to the VA.
  2. Immediately launch Tiger Teams and Flying Squads from the VA. Secretary’s Office, empowered to build, train, and correct behavior. These groups must be able to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and make changes, then monitor those changes until behavior and culture change.
  3. Implement ISO 9000 for hospitals. If a person does not know their job but has held that job for over a year, every person in that employee’s chain of command is responsible for training failures.  Employees need better training, see recommendation 1, need clearer guidelines and written policies.  Hence, with the VA University training, each process, procedure, rule, regulation needs written down, and then trained exhaustively, so employees can be held accountable.

There is a theory in the private sector called appreciative inquiry.  Appreciative inquiry is the position that whatever a business needs to succeed, it already has in abundance, the leaders simply need to tap into that reservoir and pull out the gems therein.  Having traveled this country and witnessed many good and great employees in the VA Medical Centers from Augusta ME to Seattle WA, and from Phoenix AZ to Missoula MT I know that appreciative inquiry can help and promote a cultural change in the VA.  I do not advocate a “one-size fits most” policy for the VA, as each VISN and Regional Medical Center has a different culture of patients, thus requiring differing approaches.  However, the recommendations listed above can improve where the VA is now, and form a launch point into the future.Military Crests

© 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/