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How severe is Tucson VA staffing shortage?

Posted at 6:59 PM, Mar 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-24 13:40:45-04
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - "Something is wrong with that place. Seriously wrong. Why haven't we done anything about that? Why?" said 79-year-old Rudy Garcia, a Douglas native.
 
It's a a question he wants answered -- and fast.
 
The former Army corporal and mayor of a California city is seriously sick -- he discovered -- after an examination at the Tucson VA 3 months ago.
 
It was determined -- he has cirrhosis of the liver. "They're telling me that my liver is falling apart and the only thing that's holding it is a hook," said Garcia.
 
So staff set him up to see a doctor March 3rd, but he said just 2 hours before his appointment he got a phone call from the VA to cancel. "I said whoa, whoa, wait a minute. It dawned on me. Don't we have schedules? What happened? I'm ready to go see the doctor. He said, well, he's not here," he said.
 
The doctor, he was told by the VA worker, was in another country. "How can he do that on the day of the appointment?" 
 
He believes the Tucson VA had to know about the trip in advance.
Knowing time isn't on his side, Garcia said he asked to see a different doctor. "I lost all faith. I lost everything in this guy. I couldn't trust him anymore."
 
But Garcia was told by staff that he needed to see that *specific physician and scheduling an outside doctor would likely take a month. Staff said the doctor was available March 17th -- 2 weeks later -- and Garcia agreed to reschedule the appointment.
 
And when he finally saw his doctor, he found out not only was the doctor new -- hired 4 months ago -- the doctor told him he was part-time.
 
And credible sources told KGUN9 that he's not only part time, he's the *only doctor in gastroenterology -- or the GI unit -- where liver patients are treated and he won't be there long. He's hired on a temporary basis.
 
Sources say the GI unit has been understaffed for several years with only 1 attending physician all that time. It's the same unit that deals with colon cancer.
 
"Do you know what that means? I have a neighbor 3 houses down and it took him 3 months to get a colonoscopy. That's not right. If the man's dying, he won't make it," he said.
 
Insiders confirm a 90 day waiting list right now for colonoscopies.
 
Garcia also has serious heart and lung issues, which require care from cardiology and pulmonary doctors.
 
And a letter obtained by KGUN9 -- dated February 14th -- shows a patient needing an endoscopy -- a procedure used to examine the digestive track -- now has to join the many GI patients on a wait list.
 
Sources tells me those departments are also understaffed.
 
In cardiology,10 are needed, but there are only 5 full time doctors and one is leaving soon. 
 
And in the the pulmonary critical care department, there is only one doctor. The Portland and Seattle VAs -- similar in size and complexity to Tucson -- has had 10 - 12 doctors in department.     
 
Acting director Jennifer Gutowski, in response to our investigation, acknowledges the VA faces staffing issues in gastroenterology and pulmonolgy, but did not give any details and did not include cardiology on the list.
 
Garcia says he never knew about the severe staffing issues and he's angry that the Tucson VA is not being transparent about its scheduling practices and doctor shortages. "We're trusting the VA is going to have what we need there -- and they don't," said Garcia.