Just 24 hours after 9OYS aired an investigation of the Tucson VA Healthcare System, Senator John McCain is calling for a full-scale Veteran's Affairs investigation.
McCain cites the KGUN 9 investigation in a letter sent to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to investigate allegations of staffing shortages, poor care and whistleblower retaliation at the Tucson Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
KGUN9's report started with veteran Garry Riggs, who pops a percoset pill every three hours because he's in severe pain. "I refuse to take more that what I'm taking now," said Riggs.
Riggs says he's addicted and needs to see a primary care doctor, but he's waited several months. His last appointment in October was cancelled because his doctor was leaving. "They said they were getting temps in -- temporary doctors -- and they were having difficulties even getting temps in," he said.
Veteran advocate Ed Wagner says he's sounded the alarm for years "Understaffed, broken and they're not treating their doctors like they should -- or nurses," said Wagner
That got Senator John McCain's attention. He wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald that he's concerned the "Tucson Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) is unable to retain its medical providers and that this is having a severe impact on patient wait times for medical appointments."
KGUN's investigation revealed a high turnover rate of new doctors -- most leaving within 5 years.
And this also got McCain's attention. KGUN reported that Lena Cruz is a medical supply technician -- employed 20 years at the Southern Arizona VA -- recently in infection control. She said over the past five years, management pushed overworked staff to cut corners resulting in, for example, "reusable medical equipment for colonoscopy procedures not being properly decontaminated."
"When you have less people, you tend to rush things through and you're not as thorough. It's kind of like washing dishes fast. You're going to leave stuff on the dishes. You're not going to rinse them well," said Cruz.
McCain wrote to the Secretary: "Allegations have also been raised that, due to reduced staffing, medical equipment may have become contaminated and inappropriately reused."
Cruz became a whistleblower. She said when she spoke up, she was investigated and removed from her job.
McCain wrote to the Secretary: "Perhaps the most troubling allegation is that VA has not yet changed its culture to eliminate retaliation against whistleblowers who identify problems and issues with veteran care."
A charge Wagner has made for years. KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos asked Wagner, "Do you think they were trying to sweep it under the rug?" Wagner replied, "Most definitely. Most definitely. Everybody we've talked to say, we'll look into it, but nothing has ever truly been done."
McCain also pointed out that congress has given the VA billions of dollars in emergency spending for new doctors and nurses.
And he wants to know what specific steps the VA has taken to ensure that it's using all available tools and resources to prevent excessive wait times.
McCain is asking the VA secretary for a timely response.
Full letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald
February 5, 2016
The Honorable Robert McDonald
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary McDonald,
I write to you regarding recent allegations by patients and former staff that the Tucson Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) is unable to retain its medical providers and that this is having a severe impact on patient wait times for medical appointments. I am concerned that, by the VA's own metrics, the number of recent patient appointments taking thirty days or more to schedule has risen significantly.
Allegations have also been raised that, due to reduced staffing, medical equipment may have become contaminated and inappropriately reused. Moreover, staff who have spoken out about these problems claim they have been retaliated against by VA leadership.
As you know, I have repeatedly raised issues regarding the VA's failed responses to allegations of whistleblower retaliation in Arizona. Additionally, the United States Office of Special Counsel wrote to President Obama and later testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year highlighting numerous cases of whistleblower retaliation at the VA and urged the VA to examine the need for systemic changes in disciplinary procedures to correct the many problems in this area. I ask you to ensure that allegations of whistleblower retaliation at the Tucson VAMC are thoroughly investigated.
These serious allegations also raise questions about whether the VA is using all of the tools and resources it has been granted through the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act and subsequent legislation to improve the quality and timeliness of medical care at the VA. The Veteran Choice Card Program was created specifically to prevent excessive wait times at VA hospitals and clinics by allowing veterans to receive care in the community if they cannot access care at a VA facility. Please identify what specific steps the VA has taken to ensure that the it is using all available tools and resources to ensure that the Choice Card program is being effectively implemented in the veterans community proximate to the Tucson VAMC.
Also, Congress has given the VA billions of dollars in emergency spending and direct-hire authority for hiring new doctors and nurses. The VA's Patient-Centered Community Care (PC3) provider network has progressed to the point where the inability of a veteran to see a primary care doctor within 30 days should be very rare. Perhaps the most troubling allegation is that VA has not yet changed its culture to eliminate retaliation against whistleblowers who identify problems and issues with veteran care.
I look forward to your timely response to these troubling allegations.
United States Senator
cc: Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General
cc: United States Office of Special Counsel