Before the VA hospital scandal made its way to Washington, D.C., and landed squarely on the desk of President Barack Obama, the Memphis VA Medical Center was mired in its own scandal in 2012, the year three patients died in the emergency room. An investigation ensued and the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) Office of Healthcare Inspections concluded that the deaths resulted from inadequate care.
Widespread problems with the nation's hospitals for veterans – including recent reports of delayed treatments, preventable deaths, and efforts to falsify records – drew a strong rebuke from the president: "I will not stand for it," said Obama, who met with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in the Oval Office last week prior to a news conference.
The VA facility in Phoenix particularly drew the ire of the president and prompted the OIG to investigate. The inspector general announced the department's findings on Wednesday (May 28th): At least 1,700 veterans at the medical center were not registered on the proper waiting lists to see the doctors, thereby causing veterans to be at risk of being forgotten or lost.
A number of reports were released by the OIG within the last few days in response to a number of allegations that were brought to light by confidential complainants and substantiated by the OIG after concluding its investigations.
The sweeping allegations of misconduct and questionable medical practices at the veteran facilities have drawn sharp criticism from Ninth Congressional District U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who pledged his support to the nation's veterans. He has also invited Shinseki to come to Memphis to reassure the nearly 200,000 veterans served by the VA hospital here that their concerns are taken seriously.
On Tuesday (May 27th) afternoon, State Rep. G.A. Hardaway and State Rep. Karen Camper, a veteran herself, facilitated a town hall meeting for veterans at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. They took notes and recorded the veterans' testimonies in hopes of locating resources that may be available at the local, state and federal levels.
Following the investigation of the Memphis facility a year ago, the inspector general mandated corrective action. The call for corrective measures came after an anonymous complainant alleged that a patient with a drug allergy was given the wrong medication and died. A second patient died after being administered multiple sedating drugs and left unattended. And a third patient with very high blood pressure died after treatment was delayed.
Last week, Tennessee's U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, inquired about updates on changes made at the facility via a letter sent to Robert A. Petzel, the Department of Veterans Affairs' undersecretary for health.
Changes at the VA hospital...
According to the Memphis VA hospital, changes have already begun in the emergency department. The hospital will spend approximately $5 million to renovate and expand the Emergency Department (ED) to improve urgent care delivery and access for its patients. The work will be executed in three phases and take about 1.5 years to complete.
One of the primary changes includes relocating the admissions area to the first floor of the Bed Tower. Structural changes also include closing some entrances and opening others to accommodate the flow of patient, employee and visitor traffic.
Only patients with "true" emergencies, or life-threatening issues, will be permitted to enter through the emergency room.
Other changes have already begun to take place, hospital officials said Wednesday in response to an inquiry from The New Tri-State Defender. A new nurse manager with ED experience, for example, has been hired along with 14 additional nurses. Training for the nursing staff also will be expanded to ensure they are competent and certified.
A Patient Care Assistant desk has been established that navigates 25 percent of patients with minor complaints to an appropriate provider instead of directly to the ED. And to expedite dispositions, patient flow coordinators have been established in the ED to communicate the status of patient tests with providers.
Additional administrative staff has been hired as well and an Admissions Office has been designated to coordinate admissions and transfers. Still other changes are being made as well to improve medical care for its veterans, according to the written response for the Memphis VA.
Reiterating his support...
Cohen said three congressional staffers at his Memphis office work daily on veteran affairs and that much of their constituent service is centered on veterans.
"With more and more of our nation's veterans returning from combat suffering from PTSD and serious injuries, I will continue supporting the president's efforts to make sure they are treated with the utmost respect and receive timely, high-quality care at the Memphis VAMC or any other VAMC," Cohen said.
Some of the problems with veteran hospitals could be solved if Congress appropriates more funding for more doctors and health care professionals, said Cohen.
There was a proposal to increase funding for the nation's veterans hospitals, he said, "but the Republicans refused to fund it. They stopped it in the Senate. Some of the problems are a lack of funding and the Republicans refuse to fund it."
Having their say...
The veterans who came out to the town hall meeting on Tuesday afternoon had much to say about the VA fiasco that is triggering calls for reform. Several were quite vocal about their own personal experiences regarding health care and other veteran issues.
Some of them talked about the city providing homes for struggling veterans and homeless people and using vacant school buildings, if they could be repurposed as transitional homes or facilities. One veteran spoke about his dissatisfaction with the VA hospital.
More than 70 veterans and their families attended the meeting.
"The goal was to get information directly from the veterans through their testimonies," said Hardaway.
Randy Wade, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, advocated for veterans in his former job as district director for Cohen. At Tuesday's hearing he polled the veterans to ascertain the number who were dissatisfied with the treatment they've received from the VA hospital.
"About 99 percent are unhappy," said Wade, who expressed his dissatisfaction with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the local VA hospital. Wade's former co-worker, Willie Henry Jr., Cohen's deputy director, was present and spoke briefly.
Hardaway said hospitals such as Regional One Health (formerly the Regional Medical Center) could stand in the gap for the VA hospital in terms of immediacy of services.
"We want to look to see what we can do to bring in the MED, Methodist, the University of Tennessee – whatever local medical services we have – to complement the services that the VA hospital isn't delivering."
The VA hospital, Hardaway said, should be held accountable for the job that it is charged to do to ensure accessibility and provide affordable care to veterans. He said the veterans' testimonies would be shared with some of the state agencies and made available to Sen. Alexander's office as well.
Hardaway's deceased brother was a Vietnam-era Marine and his father, also deceased, was a World War II Army veteran.
"It's personal to me," he said.
(TSD freelance reporter Ashley Grandberry contributed to this story.)