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North Country Veterans’ Clinic gets ‘clean bill of health’ during review

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MASSENA - The North Country Veterans’ Clinic received a “clean bill of health” during a review this week that was prompted by concerns about scheduling problems brought to light at a VA clinic in Phoenix, Ariz.

“All things factored in, we’re looking very good. We got a clean bill of health,” Richard G. Kazel, medical/surgical VA care line manager at the Syracuse VA Medical Center told members of the North Country Veterans’ Clinic Advisory Committee Tuesday.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned his position on May 30, a position he had held for six years, following a scandal which involved employees conspiring to hide months-long wait times that veterans faced when seeking care. An audit showed that waiting times for care appeared to have been manipulated at several facilities.

Mr. Kazel said in Phoenix “concerns (about manipulated records) emanated from a physician upon his retirement.”

The falsification of a waiting list affected approximately 1,700 veterans, he said.

“The word was they were gaming the system” by keeping two separate sets of books, which prompted a further investigation, Mr. Kazel said.

Since then, he said, reviews are being conducted by VA officials from Washington, D.C., at facilities throughout the United States. He said there are 152 VA Medical Centers, as well as more than 820 clinics like Massena Memorial Hospital’s North Country Veterans’ Clinic.

“The last two weeks there’s been an increased amount of activity. They put together teams of people real quick to do assessment, a quick, quick picture of how bad it was. These were people right out of Central Office (in Washington),” he said.

Medical centers were the first group to take part in the assessment, followed by community-based clinics in locations such as Massena, Watertown, Oswego and Ithaca. The North Country Veterans’ Clinic in Massena was reviewed Monday, and clinics in Malone and Binghamton were being reviewed Tuesday.

Mr. Kazel said there were “no issues, no concerns” during the visits.

“All the questions they were asking were very straightforward. They looked at our scheduling practices to make sure we were following the right protocol and spoke with staff,” MMH Senior Director of Practice Management Zachary K. Chapman said.

“The survey went very well. They were impressed with the fact that we could see walk-in patients,” said Mark. P. Brouillette, MMH senior director of ancillary and support services.

Mr. Kazel said he believed that the success of Massena’s clinic was because of community involvement. The North County Veterans’ Clinic Advisory Board, for instance, meets every few months to discuss the latest news and issues. Mr. Kazel also noted that, during his visit to the clinic Tuesday morning, a community member was arranging a wheelchair donation from the Eastern Star.

“I think that’s really what it is, the grass roots stuff,” he said.

“Most important is the veterans getting their care and feedback” on how the clinic is doing in terms of service, he added.

Unfortunately, he said, not every VA Medical Center or clinic is providing the same level of service as the Massena facility.

“The issues at the VA are many. I think over the last couple of years I’ve seen some issues in the VA that were very disturbing,” Mr. Kazel said.

In Dayton, Ohio, for example, he said they had an issue with sterilization of equipment. A clinic in Pittsburgh had a similar problem, leading to the death of five veterans, with another 17 getting seriously ill, he said.

That prompted a congressional hearing that was held in Pittsburgh.

Among the current issues is the wait for a decision on claims filed by veterans.

“It’s the claims and the actual processing time that’s the problem. It used to be 155 days,” he said.

Part of the problem, he said, is the use of paper files, which slows down the process.

“It’s a complicated, cumbersome process. They’ve made marked improvement. The days waiting are going down,” Mr. Kazel said.

But the damage had been done, he said.

“Add all this together and it created an aura of the VA not getting it done,” he said. “I think it’s very tumultuous right now.”

In the north country, however, “We don’t have any real problems. We have mechanisms in place,” according to Mr. Kazel.

Among them is a relatively new “Patient Center Community Care,” which provides coordinated care for veterans who are not going to be seen at a VA facility, but instead in a community facility. He said they were still working to get providers in place.

“It’s important that veterans who are receiving their care have confidence in the system,” he said.

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