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Massena veterans’ clinic gets ‘clean bill of health’ during review


MASSENA — The North Country Veterans’ Clinic received a “clean bill of health” this week during a review that was prompted by concerns about delayed care brought to light at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona, according to a regional VA manager.

“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 on Tuesday.

The clinic at Massena Memorial Hospital is among several outpatient veterans’ facilities in the north country that are undergoing review as part of the national reaction to the scandal in Phoenix, which involved employees conspiring to hide monthslong wait times that veterans faced when seeking care.

An audit showed that documented waiting times appeared to have been manipulated at several facilities. The problem led to the resignation Friday of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

Mr. Kazel said that in Phoenix, concerns came “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 community-based outpatient clinics, including the ones in Massena, Watertown, Malone and Oswego.

“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 the clinics. The North Country Veterans’ Clinic was reviewed Monday, and the Malone clinic was 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,” said Zachary K. Chapman, Massena Memorial Hospital senior director of practice management.

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

Mr. Kazel said he believed 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 said.

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, there was 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,” Mr. Kazel said. “We have mechanisms in place.”

Among them is the relatively new Patient Center Community Care program, 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 efforts are continuing 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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