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Executives responsible for Augusta VA consult delays likely won't face punishment

Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 11:07 PM
Last updated Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 12:44 AM
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The senior-level executives responsible for delays in care at veterans affairs medical centers in Augusta and Columbia probably won’t face punishment because they retired before they could be disciplined, VA leadership testified before Congress Wednesday.

Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA under secretary of health, said during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing that in the past two years, six senior executives within the VA have been removed or resigned under the threat of disciplinary action involving preventable deaths. Nine deaths at the Augusta and Columbia hospitals have been attributed to the delays in care.

Three of the resignations came in Columbia and Petzel said “a number” of other executive departures happened in Augusta, where three cancer-related deaths were revealed last year in the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center’s gastrointestinal program because 5,100 endoscopies were delayed.

Petzel did not disclose the names of the Augusta administrators who resigned, but said he would provide the committee more detail on the retirements within the next 30 days. A VA spokeswoman did not return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment.

“You mean there is no way to hold (these executives) accountable when people die because of their failures?” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked during the hearing.

“If someone wishes to resign or retire we cannot prevent that from happening,” Petzel said, adding no criminal charges or intent has been cited in any of the deaths at the two hospitals.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is investigating the administration of Rebecca Wiley, the former director of the VA centers in Augusta and Columbia, for its connection to the deaths.

Wiley voluntarily retired from the VA on Oct. 1, as the Augusta medical center brought in additional resources, held weekend clinics and referred patients into the community to clear more than 5,000 endoscopy consultations that had been delayed in its embattled GI program.

The North Augusta resident has denied repeated requests for interviews and comment by The Augusta Chronicle.

Petzel said the VA immediately addresses allegations of misconduct when they are identified through its “extensive oversight system,” which includes special counsel, the VA Office of the Inspector General, and the U.S. General Accountability Office.

He said last year, the VA removed 3,100 employees, or 1 percent of its workforce.

“We do discipline our work­force,” Petzel said. “We do hold our workforce accountable.”

Petzel and his staff said the VA has developed new productivity standards for 81 percent of its specialty lines, including gastrointestinal, and that they should have all models finished by year’s end.

Though the new standards will include an algorithm that links health care access to effective and accurate outcomes, members of the committee seemed unimpressed.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said what he found most surprising from the hearing was none of the VA executives present had previous experience in the medical industry’s private sector.

He asked VA leadership how many patients on average are seen in an eight-hour day in a typical outpatient orthopedic clinic, but staff could not provide an answer.

“You say you’ve been doing this and we’ve been talking about it for the past year, but you do not have an idea,” Wenstrup, a former chairman of a 26-doctor orthopedic group, said of the VA designing new metrics. “If you don’t have those numbers, you don’t have a base number to start with.”

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jkline 02/27/14 - 05:09 am
Bureaucracy is the disease

When I put this and other reports together with accounts from my old comrades who must deal with the VA, the appearance to me is not that the VA lacks money, but rather that its organisation is totally broken. Too complicated, too oriented on rules, too many rules (which have grown on themselves like coral to form an impassible chaos), and too many officials. I doubt that the right solution is privatisation, as this would follow other privatisation examples, and end up costing more money without delivering better results. My recommendation would be to put a soldier in charge of the VA with the mandate to drastically reduce its bureaucracy, do administratively less, and eliminate backlogs by making the procedures fast and simple. In the process, it must be accepted that the VA would be less able to produce detailed reports on what they are doing. The VA should not be asked to account for every little thing, but rather should be required to do its mission, which is to take care of veterans' medical requirements. "Perfect" is the enemy of "good enough." The VA bureaucracy needs to be cleaned out with an iron broom.

iaaffg 02/27/14 - 07:19 am
politics have been the

politics have been the ruination of this country and everything in it. no better example than here, where politics has certainly played a part in ensuring that those responsible for allowing vets to die needlessly through neglect and indifference will not have to be held accountable or pay for their lack of action and lousy attitude, but instead get to enjoy and keep their lovely retirement incomes and perks without any interruption or stress. then again, maybe they won't: a guilty conscience can sometimes wreak more punishment and agony than the roughest, toughest jury, and all the money and perks in the world won't save them from the prison in their own head.

Junket103 02/27/14 - 07:56 am
Never Going To Happen

I have to respectfully disagree with jkline's comment above regarding downsizing the VA bureaucracy. I totally agree with much of what was said, but the idea that downsizing is even an option will never occur. For the record, the current head of the VA is a retired 4-Star General and disabled veteran. He could no more downsize the bureaucracy, than President Reagan could eliminate the Energy or Education Departments. Both parties court the military and veterans groups. They bend over backwards to top one another in their efforts. Just look at the current effort in the Senate to bust the budget with a tremendous expansion of VA services. Only when both parties, veterans organizations and the media push for less or elimination of benefits or programs will there be a possibility to reform the VA.

My recommendation is to eliminate the VA bureaucracy entirely. Use the savings to either compensate veterans for lost service or provide a low or no cost premier health insurance for veterans. This will give veterans a true choice of providers and a chance for innovation. The hard working and creative staff within the VA system will do quite well in the private sector. The less productive and less energetic staff won't make it, which is how it should be.

dsterling9 02/27/14 - 08:45 am

Since hearing numerous horror stories over the years I put the VA as a last defense when seeking medical care. I have not been inside a VA location in the Augusta area; however, I do know of the problems there and inside most government run organizations...starting with complacent leadership/executives.

I fail to see why anyone should be exempt from investigation and punishment due to retiring. Sounds like ANOTHER government cover up on the way.

reader54 02/27/14 - 11:29 am
Needless Wars

If our Government makes the decision for military action on foreign soil, whether it is necessary or not, the sitting POTUS and Congress should insure that the funds are put aside to properly care for our Warriors' needs after their sacrifice.
IMO, there hasn't been a necessary war since WWII, The Mother of all Wars, thus far. The rest have been for strategic influence and money for the "connected" few.
We all need to realize that the Middle Class and the Poor fight the wars and make the ultimate sacrifice while protecting the Interest of U.S. Multinational Corps. and our citizens that reside or vacation outside the U.S.
How much money do you think would be invested in foreign lands by these US World Conglomerates w/o the assurance that their investments are protected by our Warriors? They are the true profiteers of these Global Police Conflicts yet pay an unequal share of taxes. This must change quickly before another option hits the table. The rapid advancement of technologies will provide a choice; Can Robots replace Infantry and do a better job more cheaply? One only has to research DARPAs current programs to see that is the goal; machines w/o Conscious or Emotion that are capable of killing Anyone, Anywhere! At that point, the Majority of Society, may become expendable. Extreme? Definitely. Possible? Absolutely!
Interesting times, indeed!

Fiat_Lux 02/27/14 - 01:17 pm
There's much to be worried about with this.

It's no surprise no one will be punished for the malfeasance. But there should be some ability to prevent it from happening again.

There's a fine line to walk when punishing govt and elected officials. The higher ups often are held accountable for things underlings do, things they did not allow, had no knowledge of and likely had no way of knowing about before everything hit the fan. That plays a huge role in assessing culpability, which often doesn't even enter the picture when people are looking for a scapegoat's blood.

There are some really, really awful, evil people working in government, and most of them are not, in fact, in the top spots. There are many thieves and other treacherous lowlifes without a conscience inhabiting mid- and lower-level positions all over the government and military.

jimmymac 02/27/14 - 02:44 pm

Obama hasn't punished anyone for anything since he's been in office. Instead the VA people were getting bonuses for a job well done. Disgusting!

SemperParatus 02/27/14 - 04:07 pm
Just an idea

I am wondering if the families of the deceased could sue these retired VA executives in civil court for negligence. Normally I don't promote lawsuits but this seems like a fair approach.

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