WASHINGTON – Several members of Congress demanded Tuesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs release a full complement of nursing home data that the agency has kept hidden from the public for years, citing a recent USA TODAY and Boston Globe investigation into the state of care at VA facilities.
The VA pushed back Tuesday on the report, which was based on the agency’s own internal documents and facility ratings, by downplaying the findings and calling the story “fake news.”
The internal documents show that care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes scored worse on average than private sector homes on key quality indicators, including rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription and residents’ deterioration.
Following inquiries from USA TODAY and the Globe, the VA last week released some of its nursing home ratings, but not the underlying quality data, such as rates of infection and injury. The agency has tracked this information for years, but kept it from public view.
“Widespread underperformance at VA nursing homes is a betrayal of veterans’ trust and wellbeing,” said Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “VA concealing this data from the public until news stories were about to be filed makes matters infinitely worse and is nothing more than fake transparency.
“Veterans and their loved ones deserve real accountability and transparency at VA, and that is why I am calling on VA to make all nursing home data, especially key quality indicators such as rates of injury and infection, available to the public immediately.”
Both the Republican-led House and Senate VA committees requested briefings from VA officials following the report. Those meetings are scheduled later this week, spokespeople for the committees said.
VA press secretary Curt Cashour, meanwhile, took to Twitter to claim that prior to Trump’s presidency, “you haven't seen this much VA transparency or accountability,” and call the story about the secret nursing home data “the definition of fake news.”
Cashour on Tuesday claimed the story painted “a misleading picture of how our facilities actually compare with the private sector.”
The ratings showed that as of March 31, nearly half of VA nursing homes – 58 – received the lowest rating for quality in the agency’s rankings of one out of five stars.
Cashour declined to answer questions about why the VA hasn’t released the underlying nursing home quality data, inspection reports, or staffing data.
He asserted that “overall,” the VA nursing home system “compares closely” with the private sector. But he said VA nursing homes score lower on key quality indicators because veterans are typically sicker than residents of private facilities.
“Also, private sector nursing homes admit patients selectively, whereas – unlike the private sector – VA will not refuse service to any eligible veteran, no matter how challenging the veteran’s conditions are to treat,” Cashour said.
Lawmakers demanding the VA release all its nursing home data include Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, also Democrats.
The VA nursing home in Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of the worst in the country in the agency’s quality ratings last year receiving one out of five stars, in part for giving so many residents anti-psychotic drugs, according to internal VA documents.
“Veterans deserve the best healthcare in the world. Period. That means having more transparency than private providers, not less,” said Moulton, an Iraq veteran who receives healthcare at the Bedford VA. “The VA is doing many things well, but this is a clear example of where they are failing.”
The VA nursing home in Tuskegee, Alabama, also was among the worst in the country in the agency’s quality ratings last year, according to internal documents. Staff there lost track of Earl James Zook, 72, a dementia patient and known wander risk, who walked out a broken door on a secure ward in January 2017 and hasn’t been seen since. His wife of 38 years, Leslie Roe, had him declared dead earlier this year.
“This information is shocking,” Jones said. “And even more than that, it’s so sad that we continue to let down those men and women who have served us so well, and that we have made promises to take care of them, and we just continue to fail, and that is both sad and shocking.”
A bipartisan group of House members from Florida penned a letter to the VA Monday urging that care be improved at VA nursing homes in Tampa and Bay Pines, Fla., both one-star facilities in agency rankings. The lawmakers called the VA’s claim that veteran’s are sicker than private nursing home residents “simply insufficient.”
“We cannot tolerate sub-par quality of care for Veterans who have sacrificed so much,” wrote Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist. “They have earned the best we can offer.”
Cashour, the VA spokesman, said “VA appreciates the lawmakers’ concerns and will respond to them directly.”
Conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, which has generally been supportive of VA leadership under Trump, echoed lawmakers who said VA needs to open the books on its nursing homes.
“The more data that the VA can share, the better, because ultimately, at the end of the day, it helps veterans,” Dan Caldwell, executive director of the group, said in an interview. “It helps veterans determine whether or not they are getting the quality of care that they deserve.”