With Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki expected to face grilling today by a U.S. Senate committee over allegations of treatment delays and related coverups at VA health-care facilities in various states, Florida officials have shed new light on the sprawling health system’s lack of transparency.
After reports of delays in patient care or inadequate supervision coming from South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Washington state, and most recently, Arizona, Florida regulators decided they couldn’t trust the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to police its own hospitals there—but they’ve had a difficult time doing anything about it. Inspectors from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration began showing up unannounced at VA facilities across the Sunshine State last month asking to look at records. Each time, the result was the same. The inspectors were told they have no right to the records and were asked to leave.
Now the state is reduced to requesting records related to quality assurance and risk management at the VA centers under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that requires agencies to provide public documents to the public—with certain exceptions. (FOIA, as the law is known, can be used by any member of the public and is frequently employed by news reporters.) So far, the state says its April 30 FOIA request hasn’t been any more productive than its unsuccessful inspection attempts at six VA facilities. (The VA has 20 days to respond to the FOIA request.)
It’s unclear whether the Florida standoff will be mentioned, but the regulation and oversight of VA medical facilities will take center stage on Capitol Hill today at a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing. Shinseki, who has been hearing calls for his resignation amid allegations of shoddy care, is the most highly anticipated witness. In late April, CNN reported that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System. Former VA employees have claimed that officials kept secret waiting lists designed to hide patients’ treatment delays. Phoenix administrators have denied those allegations.
Florida officials began banging on the doors of VA medical centers in early April, following a report that five patients died because of delays in diagnosis or treatment in the region that includes Florida. The VA has not publicly identified the facilities at which those deaths occurred.
The Florida health-care agency already inspects more than 200 hospitals in the state and has “the expertise to assess the risk management programs and internal incident reporting practices” at VA medical facilities, says Shelisha Coleman, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The VA says it is working to address the concerns of Florida Governor Rick Scott, who ordered the inspections. Gina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the agency, says every VA medical facility is accredited by the Joint Commission—a nonprofit that does its own inspection of facilities. She also said the agency has self-inspection and internal monitoring. Shinseki recently ordered a “face-to-face” audit of all VA medical clinics.