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Official says Phoenix VA Health Care System has improved

(Cronkite News Service phobo ty Chad Garland)

(Cronkite News Service photo by Chad Garland)

Despite a new report raising serious questions about the quality of care within the Phoenix VA Health Care System, a top official in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs said Wednesday that significant progress has been made.

VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin addressed the VA Inspector General’s report while introducing a newly appointed director for the Phoenix system.

The report, which was released Tuesday, found Phoenix VA staff inappropriately canceled medical consults that possibly contributed to the death of one veteran who did not get a recommended stress test. Consults include appointments, lab tests, teleconferencing and other planned patient contacts.

“That is a situation we take very seriously,” Shulkin said.

Shulkin said the cancellations were not made by managers, but lower-level staff who were unclear about the proper way to cancel consults.

“That’s why we’ve invested in additional training, in additional auditing and additional clarification of our policies to make sure that everyone is clear on how to do this,” Shulkin said.

However, he said the report also showed how the Phoenix facilities have improved in the last two years such has more hiring, 70,000 square feet of additional space and “fast track” care for the emergency room.

“We’ve seen our consults and our wait times come down significantly. And most important, we’ve seen our patient satisfaction ai??i?? what veterans are saying about their care and their access to care in Phoenix ai??i?? rise significantly from 66 percent into the mid-70s,” Shulkin said.

Yet, the report states there were 38,000 open consults at the Phoenix VA as of last July. The Phoenix system enrolls about 85,000 veterans

Shulkin acknowledged more needs to be done including a less archaic appointment scheduling system and more medical staff.

Nearly 730 employees have been hired at the Phoenix system since it became the center of a national scandal in April 2014. Veterans Affairs internal investigations identified 35 veterans who died while awaiting care.

Earlier in the day, Shulkin and new director Rima Ann Nelson met with veterans groups as well as members of Arizona’s Congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is challenging McCain in the November election.

Shulkin praised Nelson as a leader who knows how to make decisions and acts on behalf of veterans, calling her part of the solution.

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