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Hoosier lawmakers grill VA on delayed care

– Indiana congressmen demanded last week that the Department of Veterans Affairs explain why inpatient care at its Fort Wayne medical center has been suspended for the past month.

Reps. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, and Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, and Republican Sen. Dan Coats said in separate interviews that they were working in tandem in an effort to get answers. Stutzman and Donnelly, who was elected to the Senate on Nov. 6, are members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The three lawmakers want “to make sure this situation gets remedied right away,” Donnelly said Wednesday morning.

A few hours later, Coats complained about the lack of information from VA regarding when inpatient care would resume in Fort Wayne.

“Some people say it’s going to be weeks, others won’t give you answers,” he said.

On Thursday, Stutzman said that a shortage of medical and administrative staff at the Lake Avenue medical center was the root cause for VA’s decision to temporarily close the hospital ward, which has about 30 beds for acute- and intensive-care patients.

Whether the suspension had been ordered by local, regional or national VA officials was unclear, Stutzman said.

“There’s a total collapse of leadership (at VA) from the bottom up, and I don’t know how far up, but we’re going to find out,” Stutzman said in an interview. “It’s inexcusable.”

Pressure from the three lawmakers and their staffs – including a Wednesday conference call with VA officials that was described to The Journal Gazette as a blunt and heated discussion – apparently produced results.

Late Friday afternoon, Sheryl Grubb, public affairs officer for VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, said the system’s goal is to resume inpatient services in the first three months of 2013 provided that “facility leadership is assured they have established sustainable, high-quality safe systems and processes, and can confirm staff competencies are in place.“

Grubb disclosed that the medical center’s chief of medicine had retired. She also said the regional system “has additional vacancies in key positions that need to be filled.”

Grubb listed those vacancies as being three positions in mental health, geriatrics and extended and primary care. The medical center is recruiting both inside and outside VA hospitals, she said.

Also Friday, VA Northern Indiana Health Care System announced the appointment of a new director: Denise Deitzen, who has been in charge of a VA medical center in Saginaw, Mich., the past three years. She replaces interim director Brent Thelen, who had taken over in July for Daniel Hendee, who transferred to another VA facility after two years in Fort Wayne.

When Grubb announced Oct. 23 that VA was suspending local inpatient services, she said local officials did so “to review our processes” and provide training to staff. She said at the time that outpatient services would be unaffected at the 200,000-square-foot medical center.

In June 2011, VA’s inspector general reported that an inspection of the center’s intensive-care unit found inadequate staffing on 23 days during a six-month period, as well as insufficient management and monitoring of two patients, including one who died, and the inappropriate admission of a third patient.

Stutzman said last week he could not understand why the Fort Wayne medical center was not filling job openings fast enough to keep its hospital wards operating.

“If Lutheran or Parkview did that? I mean, they couldn’t. They would look silly,” Stutzman said about Fort Wayne-based hospital systems. “This is what is happening. The VA is looking silly.

“If (VA) would have communicated that ‘we are going to do some major upgrade to the facilities and we’re going to have to shut down the unit for a temporary period,’ that’s one thing,” Stutzman said. “But for this to have happened from openings or vacancies in administrative roles, that’s inexcusable.”

The medical center had planned to remodel the intensive- and acute-care facilities, Grubb said, “so we accelerated that and we are doing that ahead of schedule and took advantage of the pause” in inpatient care.

Stutzman and Donnelly are adamant about retaining hospital beds at the medical center, which was built in 1950.

“I have long thought that hospital beds in Fort Wayne are a good thing. … It has made our veterans’ lives better,” Donnelly said.

Coats is not against having Parkview Health, Lutheran Health Network or another hospital system contract for VA inpatient care.

“We need to look at it from the standpoint of the veteran and the care that they deserve rather than just simply say, well, OK, we’re going to keep the beds (at the VA Medical Center) but you’re not going to get the quality care we could have gotten had we, say, entered into a joint agreement” with a private provider, Coats said.

“The closer to home, the better,” he said.

Parkview Health has a campus next to the VA facility, which employs more than 600 people.

“My preference is to have a first-class VA operation in Fort Wayne,” Coats said.

Stutzman, Donnelly and Coats said they will contact VA’s inspector general and are trying to arrange a conference call or meeting with a department undersecretary as early as this week.

If the Wednesday conversation with VA officials is any indication, the Hoosier lawmakers will continue to press VA for explanations and push for improvements at the medical center.

“I haven’t been on a call where I’ve been as upset,” Stutzman said.

He said VA’s oversight of its Fort Wayne complex is “just carelessness and, frankly, some laziness.”

VA Northern Indiana Health Care System has facilities in six cities and serves 39,000 veterans in Indiana and northwest Ohio.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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