VA must do better in serving Northwest veterans

The News TribuneSeptember 10, 2013 

If the Department of Veterans Affairs graded its health care facilities on the bell curve, the result for its Puget Sound region would be a big fat F for the three months ending June 30.

That should be a huge concern for veterans, their loved ones and public officials who have focused on improving health care for the many former servicemen and women who live in the region. The VA Puget Sound Health Care System served nearly 89,000 patients in the past fiscal year at its hospitals in Seattle and Lakewood (American Lake) and seven outpatient clinics.

According to documents obtained by The Seattle Times, the Puget Sound system has never earned more than two stars for overall quality out of a possible five during the six three-month evaluation periods that ended June 30. It earned the lowest possible score of one star for three evaluation periods, including the most recent one.

The VA’s internal reviews compare 127 hospitals on 24 measurements, such as patient mortality, infections, employee turnover and staff response time to calls. Several facilities earn five stars for overall quality, which makes the Puget Sound system’s one- and two-star ratings even more disturbing. For instance, 12 hospitals earned five stars during the three-month period from January through March.

The VA doesn’t disclose the results of its internal reviews, nor was this information shared with Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, whose office periodically meets with VA officials to review performance. He’s right to push for more transparency from the agency.

The evaluations are important because they can reveal significant lapses in certain treatment as well as personnel problems. For instance, the Puget Sound system was marked down for higher mortality rates during acute care, higher rates of pneumonia related to ventilator use, and high employee turnover.

The turnover rates — and subsequent staff shortages — might be contributing factors to the other problems. Times interviews with former employees also turned up concerns with management ranging from ignoring employee concerns to retaliating against those pushing for changes.

The Puget Sound VA was put on notice that it needed to make improvements back in 2000, when it ranked 137th out of 139 VA hospitals in some key categories. And it seemed like it had been making progress in recent years. But the VA’s comparison reviews show that either other facilities are getting better or the Puget Sound’s are backsliding.

With its many military installations, this region is a prime jumping-off place for those leaving the service, whether through retirement or disability incurred in war zones. The facilities serving their health care needs should be among the best in the nation, and the state’s congressional delegation should be doing everything it can to find out why the opposite is the reality.

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