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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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House VA committee to hold Florida hearing

The House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a field hearing in Florida after a request from Gov. Rick Scott.

In his on-going election-year battle with the Veterans Administration, Scott is calling for the field hearing because “numerous veterans have written to my office...and contributed their own stories of the VA’s neglect and incompetence.”

In his letter to Florida Republican Jeff Miller, committee chairman, Scott cites the cases of three veterans — including one from Pinellas County — who experienced delays in treatment. The letter only gives the veterans’ first names.

“John, a Vietnam Veteran from Pinellas County, says the VA denied his request for a new primary care physician,” according to the letter. “After seven months, he was finally able to get a new doctor and was diagnosed with stage two colon cancer.”

On Tuesday, the governor’s office, in an email to The Tribune, identified that veteran as John Poloney.

The committee is planning a field hearing in Florida to address questions about deaths and injuries due to delays in VA care, said spokesman Curt Cashour.

The committee wants to know when the deaths and injuries occurred, who was in charge at the facilities where the delays took place and whether anyone has been held accountable, said Cashour,

The committee has been investigating a number of problems at the VA, including the delay in treatments leading to patient deaths — three of which took place in the VA’s Sunshine Healthcare Network, which includes all of Florida, south Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“With more than 1.5 million veterans, Florida would provide your committee the opportunity to receive input from veterans who rely on the federal VA Hospitals for their health care services,” Scott wrote in his letter to Miller. “Their insight is invaluable, and would provide members of your committee with the type of first-hand account of the VA’s shortcoming that will enable your committee to create the needed transparency and improvements that our veterans deserve.”

Scott ordered an investigation of VA medical facilities earlier this month after a series of stories and an editorial appeared in The Tampa Tribune about the patient deaths and efforts to find answers from the VA, which turned down a Freedom of Information Act request. The committee had been seeking the same answers from the VA since September.

The VA initiated an investigation into the deaths after the discovery that patients in Georgia and South Carolina died after delayed medical treatment.

VA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“For the past 10 years, an independent customer service survey of VA patients has consistently shown that veterans give VA hospitals and clinics a higher customer satisfaction score, on average, than patients give private sector hospitals,” Mary Kay Hollingsworth, a spokeswoman for the Sunshine Healthcare Network, said in an emailed statement to The Tribune Wednesday. “During those times when an incident does occur at one of more than 1,700 health care facilities across the country, VA takes these incidents seriously and works hard to identify, mitigate, and prevent additional risks...We are working with Governor Scott’s office to address his concerns and the Agency of Health Care Administration’s recent unannounced visits to VA medical centers. Due to federal guidelines and Privacy Act considerations, VA cannot disclose patient or employee information.” Robert L. Jesse, Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health, for the Veterans Health Administration spoke to AHCA Secretary Elizabeth Dudek, on Friday and again Tuesday, wrote Mary Kay Hollingsworth, a Sunshine Healthcare Network spokeswoman.

“Jesse shared information with regard to the extensive and voluntary external reviews that VA routinely engages,” she wrote. “He also stated VA’s desire to work in partnership with AHCA to ensure quality to all Veterans in the state of Florida. Dr. Jesse committed to releasing to Ms. Dudek any information that is permissible under current law and providing an explanation for any materials that VA is not authorized to release under law and what legal requirements would need to be met in order for their release. VA looks forward to working collaboratively with AHCA.” Earlier this month, the VA released the results of its investigation into the deaths.

None 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 VA. But there were two patients at the Bay Pines facility and one in Tampa who were injured, according to the report.Two of the deaths resulted from delays at the North Florida/South Georgia VA Health System and one was from the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center, according to the VA. Another two patient deaths in the region were determined not be related to the delays, according to the VA.

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