Today’s congressional hearing on patient care problems at the Salisbury VA hospital could be the first of many sessions intended to bring tougher oversight to the nation’s largest healthcare system.
The hearings follow Observer stories about accounts of poor treatment at the main veterans hospital for the Charlotte area.
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, the California Democrat who heads the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says problems make the Salisbury VA hospital a “case study” for nationwide reforms.
“We need a more aggressive investigative process,” Filner told the Observer on Wednesday.
“What exists is just broken.”
He said workers he’s talked with at other VA hospitals fear losing their jobs if they discuss worries about patient care.
“When there is that kind of fear, there are enormous systemic problems,” he said.
Matt Burns, VA press secretary in Washington, said he disagrees with that characterization. “The department has numerous mechanisms in place and an environment which encourages employees to notify superiors when issues arise.”
The Observer has reported that two top former employees say they were forced out of their jobs after warning of patient care problems at the Salisbury VA hospital. One was a radiologist, Dr. Paul Karmin, and the other a chief nurse, Donald Doering.
Results of two VA inspections in the last month also are expected at the hearing. Filner said there will be “lots of” hearings to determine more effective monitoring of VA health care.
Salisbury hospital officials have said they made fixes when problems were identified. Documents obtained by the Observer indicate some problems persisted. Karmin and Doering said hospital management did not act on their concerns.
A key issue at the hearings will be whether there was adequate follow-up after VA investigators found in 2005 that the hospital provided bad care in cases reviewed, including two deaths. The VA closed the investigation last year, without a second visit, after the hospital said it made recommended changes.
The report of the 2005 VA investigation was not made public until the Observer obtained it last month. Last year, the VA didn’t tell its investigators conducting a routine inspection about the problems identified in 2005 by another branch of the agency. The 2006 inspection report revealed other problems.
Three N.C. members of Congress requested Filner hold hearings: Republicans Howard Coble of Greensboro and Robin Hayes of Concord, and Charlotte Democrat Mel Watt.
They urged the same intensity of scrutiny being given to Walter Reed Army Medical Center following reports this year of deplorable conditions for wounded soldiers. Army hospitals are not part of the VA system.
Since learning of the 2005 VA report, family members of one patient whose death was investigated have been questioning what more they could have done.
Carrol Edward Minish, 68, of Conover, died in 2004 after surgery to remove a gangrenous toe. VA investigators said the surgeon’s grasp of critical information was “rudimentary at best.”
Minish’s daughter, Carolyn Winters, said she wishes she had spoken up at the time about frustrations she had with her father’s care. She hopes the hearings will prompt the agency to improve.
“They risked their lives for us,” she said of veterans. “You go to a hospital to get better, not to come out in a body bag.”