American Legion National Commander Clarence E. Hill says he is concerned about a VA directive that refuses public disclosure of inspection reports that might reflect negatively upon VA facilities.
"I am bothered by VA's practice of designating facility reports that measure timeliness and quality of care as ‘protected documents' for internal use only. VA administrators as well as veterans who turn to VA for their health-care would benefit from knowing the state of affairs at VA facilities."
Hill's statement was prompted by VA's refusal to readily disclose information contained in a report issued by the Long Term Care Institute (LTCI), an organization hired by VA to provide quality reviews of its Community Living Centers (CLC). The reports issued by the LTCI assesses the quality of care in VA facilities and provide recommendations for addressing any deficiencies.
Of the more than 100 CLC reports, one from June, 2008, detailed incidents of wholesale neglect of some veterans residing in the Philadelphia CLC. This report was recently obtained by a Pittsburgh newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act and became the basis of a critical story in the paper. Many veterans objected to the fact that it took an investigative reporter to bring the matter to light.
VA maintains that information provided in the LTCI reports constitutes quality management activities protected by federal statue. This code (38 U.S.C. § 5705) provides that records and documents created by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) as part of a designated medical quality-assurance program are confidential and privileged and may not be disclosed to any person or entity except when specifically authorized by the statute. There is no authority contained within the statute for disclosure to members of the news media, says VA.
The department argues further that congressional oversight committees are able to obtain copies of quality-assurance documents when they are requested for official oversight purposes. VA also points out that the situation in question occurred more than a year ago and that leadership took swift action once it surfaced. A VA spokesperson says: "Many changes have been implemented at the Philadelphia Veterans Community Living Center, including disciplining and terminating personnel contracts, installing a new leadership team, hiring specialists in the areas of wound care and staff training, installing new equipment in the Nutrition and Food area, and beginning nearly $10 million in construction projects. The Department of Veterans Affairs places the highest priority on the safety, security and dignity of all of our Veteran patients."
Commander Hill responded, saying the Legion can help VA rectify its current situation.
"That is all well and good, but we still believe it is the responsibility of the VA to make the findings in this report, and others like it, accessible to its stakeholders – America's veterans," Hill said. "We can work together to improve the VA health-care system by identifying any deficiencies realized in these reports. If, for instance, The American Legion is aware of deficiencies and problems affecting the health and welfare of our veterans in VA care, we can assist with resolving them, as we have for decades.
"In particular, The American Legion's ‘A System Worth Saving' program is employed to follow up on GAO reports, IG inspections and independent findings to identify where positive steps have been made by the VA to improve identified issues," Hill added. "Without the ability to use all information available, an incomplete and misleading picture emerges. Conversely, a hand-in-hand cooperative approach is to everyone's benefit, especially the most deserving parties of all – our nation's veterans.
"The American Legion has a long history of advocating on behalf of America's veterans. By working with VA to identify areas in need of improvement, we can continue that proud tradition by providing a strong voice for VA and working with Congress to provide a budget that will enable facility administrators to adequately address any issues identified in these reports."