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Congress seeks more information on VA deaths

TAMPA — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald has ordered a review of the VA’s national consult database, an independent review of the consultation process and clarification by a top VA official of his testimony before Congress on delays in VA diagnosis and treatment.

The VA “had weaknesses in its consultation practices for a number of years,” McDonald said in a letter to the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday.

McDonald was reacting to a letter sent Aug. 4 by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Panhandle Republican, demanding a fuller accounting of the deaths and injuries from VA delays.

Earlier this month, Miller widened the scope of his committee’s inquiry into the delays, including a demand for results of the VA’s review of 250 million consultations dating back to 1999.

Miller is seeking the dates of each delayed consultation and resulting death and injury as well as the locations where the delays took place. He also wants to know the dates when patients were notified they may have suffered harm — and the number of veterans who waited more than 60 days for a consultation but whose health problems, the VA says, were not related to the delay.

Miller demanded the information by Aug. 11, seeking assurance “this inquiry receives precedence above all other congressional requests for information.”

On Monday, McDonald responded with contrition.

“I am disappointed by how the Department characterized the findings of its internal consult reviews,” McDonald wrote to Miller. “This is a complex subject, but VA has a responsibility to communicate clearly and accurately to Congress, veterans and the American public.”

In April, the VA issued a report saying 76 patients nationwide had suffered injuries as a result of delays and that 23 of them had died. Since then, an additional patient has died, according to the VA.

The VA initiated an internal review after deaths were discovered in Georgia and South Carolina.

Three of those deaths were in the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, which covers Florida, south Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

None of the deaths was the result of actions at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa or the C.W. “Bill” Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, according to the National Consult Delay Review Fact Sheet report delivered to Congress.

But there were two “institutional disclosures” at the Bay Pines center and one in Tampa, according to the report. That means patients or their representatives were notified that the veterans were harmed during their care. The report does not specify the level of harm or list any patient names.

The deaths and injuries in the Sunshine Healthcare Network arose from 301,000 consultations made between 2010 and 2012, said Joleen Clark, director of the Sunshine Healthcare Network, also known as VISN 8.

After the April report was released to Congress, Thomas Lynch, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations, said that “the majority of the deaths nationally happened as the result of delays in 2010 and 2011,” but he could not offer a specific figure or dates.

Miller said that response obfuscated the scope of the problem and he is demanding a fuller review.

On Monday, McDonald told Miller he ordered Lynch to clarify his testimony.

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