The Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled a new website Wednesday aimed at providing information on the quality of care at VA medical centers, touting new accountability even as it grappled with fresh questions of patient safety in its beleaguered health system.
The VA website, www.accesstocare.va.gov, is a work in progress. It provides preliminary data on the VA's 1,700 health facilities, along with more than a dozen private-sector hospitals and national averages. Three years after a wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, the website offers comparative data on wait times as well as veterans' satisfaction ratings in getting timely appointments.
It comes at a time of change at the VA, after President Donald Trump promised during his 2016 campaign to give veterans more choices between VA and private-sector hospitals to receive the best care possible. On Wednesday, fresh problems at the government's second largest agency emerged after the VA inspector general's office released a report finding patient safety issues at the VA medical center in Washington D.C.
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The urgent, preliminary report by inspector general Michael Missal pointed to poor inventory practices that put patients at risk, from dirty storage areas for syringes to lack of checks to remove medical equipment and supplies that had been subject to safety recalls. The findings prompted the VA to announce by Wednesday afternoon that it had relieved the facility's director in Washington D.C., Brian Hawkins, of his duties.
Poonam Alaigh, the VA's acting undersecretary for health, told The Associated Press that she had decided to reassign Hawkins to VA headquarters after reviewing the IG's report and indicated he could be subject to disciplinary action pending a fuller investigation. In the meantime, VA senior adviser Lawrence Connell has been named acting director for the Washington D.C. medical center.
Alaigh said the VA was adopting immediate fixes and that she would order a broader review of the VA health system for similar patient safety issues.
"When it's about patient safety, it warrants immediate action," Alaigh said. "There should not be a situation where a veteran can be harmed."
As to its new website, the VA said it had gotten more than 700,000 hits by Wednesday afternoon, the first day of its rollout. Intended to spur competition for improvement among its medical facilities as veterans assess how their local hospital is doing, the site also will allow veterans to compare VA quality of care rankings with private-sector hospitals.
As of Wednesday, data for just over a dozen or so private hospitals was accessible. The data is drawn from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The VA said it hoped to have a fuller rollout of data by May 1 and will update data monthly once the site is fully operational.
The website was generally welcomed as a good first step, although some veterans groups wondered how meaningful the information will be.
The Government Accountability Office has long questioned how accurate the VA's wait time data is, noting that it does not include the amount of wait time from when a veteran initially asks for care and when a scheduler reaches out to set an appointment, which it said could be lengthy. In addition, GAO continues to find evidence that VA data can be unreliable due to schedulers recording wrong dates or changing dates outright, though the VA says it is implementing new checks and training to help identify "outliers" in scheduling.
Dawn Jirak, a deputy director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said her organization is worried that "this is just yet another website that VA has come up with" but said she looked forward to improvements the VA says it will make to the site.
"The way VA is depicting its wait times for appointments is skewed from how the typical person would look at it," she said.