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Utah hospital director deployed to help fix VA

By Mitch Shaw, Standard-Examiner Staff - | May 30, 2014
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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses as he speaks at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Friday, May 30, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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Retired U.S. Army General Eric K. Shinseki resigned as secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday. Shinseki's resignation comes amidst controversy surronding a Phoenix VA Medical Center that kept an off-the-books list to conceal long wait times as 40 veterans died waiting to get an appointment. (Dpeartment of Veterans Affairs photo)

While Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned amid a crisis in the agency’s health care system, the director of Utah’s main VA hospital is down south, trying to clean up the mess.

Shinseki resigned Friday after publicly apologizing for recently uncovered problems plaguing the VA’s health care services. 

According to the Associated Press, President Barack Obama said he accepted the retired four-star general’s resignation “with considerable regret” during an Oval Office meeting.

Shinseki has been under major fire for several weeks, as lawmakers in both parties have called for his resignation since an internal report found major problems in the enormous VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.

Obama said Shinseki served with honor, but the secretary told him the VA is in need of new leadership and at this point, he would only be a distraction.

“I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem,” Obama said.

Obama tabbed current VA Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson to run the department on an interim basis while the search for another secretary begins.

An independent review of Veterans Administration health centers determined that government officials falsified records to hide the amount of time former service members have had to wait for medical appointments.

The report found that 1,700 veterans using a Phoenix VA hospital were kept on unofficial wait lists, a practice that helped officials avoid criticism for failing to accommodate former service members in the appropriate amount of time.

A review of 226 veterans seeking appointments at the hospital in 2013 found that 84 percent had to wait more than two weeks to be seen. But officials at the hospital had reported that fewer than half were forced to wait that long, a false account that was then used to help determine eligibility for employee awards and pay raises.

The agency has made it a goal to schedule appointments for veterans seeking medical care within 30 days. But the interim IG report found that in the 226-case sample the average wait for a veteran seeking a first appointment was 115 days, a period officials allegedly tried to hide by placing veterans on “secret lists” until an appointment could be found in the appropriate time frame.

“We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide,” the report states. “We have identified multiple types of scheduling practices not in compliance with VHA policy.”

As fallout from the scandal continues, Steven Young, director of Salt Lake City’s veterans hospital, has been deployed to Phoenix to oversee the disgraced medical center that is responsible for an estimated 85,000 veterans and an operating budget of about $500 million.

Young has been the director of the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System since June 2009. During his tenure, Salt Lake City’s hospital has made gains in reducing the backlog of veterans claims for benefits. Young’s time in Utah also has seen the VA install clinics in rural communities such as Price and Elko, Nev., where veterans can have a video chat with a physician in Salt Lake City.

“Steve Young is Mr. VA,” said Dennis Howland, president of the Northern Utah Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. “He’s really a brilliant man and we’re very pleased he’s involved.”

Howland said the veterans community has been up in arms since news of the Phoenix scandal broke. The national VVA has called for a criminal investigation into the ordeal.

“(We’ve) requested a criminal investigation be immediately undertaken by the United States Attorney for the district of Arizona for possible charges of wilful neglect, potential obstruction of justice, and any other related charges that substantiate reckless endangerment,” VVA National President John Rowan said in a press release.

The problems in Phoenix compound the fact that VA hospitals around the country have struggled to handle the huge volume of veterans who need medical attention.

In the past year alone, VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight.

Government investigators reported this month that employees at a veterans medical clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., were instructed to falsify records to make it appear as though patients were getting appointments close to the day requested.

Howland said whoever replaces Shinseki needs to fix the VA’s backlog problem.

“We try to stay out of the politics of the whole thing, but our responsibility is also to do what’s best for the vets,” he said. “And the timing on evaluations and benefits is still a huge problem.”

The Washington Post and Associated Press Contributed to this story.

Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.

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