OP-ED — Wicker: Reform at Jackson VA long overdue

Sen. Roger Wicker

Sen. Roger Wicker

Last week’s headlines about the quality of management and care at Jackson’s G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center were not a surprise to those of us who have sought reform for the past two years. In fact, national attention – heralded by a comprehensive article in the New York Times – was long overdue.

Under the headline “A Pattern of Problems at a Hospital for Veterans,” the Times article painted an appalling picture of conduct at the Jackson VA over the past several years. Among the accusations were missed diagnoses, improper sterilization procedures, and outright criminality.

The newspaper report followed news that the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) had sent a letter to the White House on March 18 regarding a “troubling pattern of disclosure.” OSC is responsible for handling complaints from federal whistleblowers before referring them to the VA Secretary for investigation. Only a fraction of complaints have led to an investigation. As the Times noted, the OSC letter about the Jackson VA was “unusually strong.”

The outcry from OSC underscores countless calls from concerned Mississippians and veterans about the urgent need for better care. I believe our veterans deserve top-quality medical services – a priority I take very seriously in Washington. Mississippi’s veterans routinely contact my office for assistance with issues involving health care and the benefits claims process. I remain committed to using every resource necessary to ensure that these and other concerns are promptly addressed.

As evidence has come to light about systemic problems affecting patient care at the Jackson VA, our congressional delegation has increased efforts to encourage local and national leaders to take action. Last year, I met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki specifically to discuss the Jackson VA’s ongoing problems and the persistence of veterans’ complaints. Earlier this month, Sen. Cochran and I had a discussion with VA Under Secretary for Health Robert A. Petzel about the latest VA actions to address these concerns. In that meeting, Petzel was optimistic about the steps that are now being taken to improve the quality of care and operations in Jackson, including the appointment of Joe Battle as the medical center’s new director.

Some interested parties contend that problems at the Jackson VA have already been addressed since the OSC received the first complaint in 2009. I have requested regular updates about the progress that has been made.

The magnitude of the allegations across hospital departments – and their profound implications for the quality of patient care – demand continued vigilance and scrutiny. Years of investigations and staff turnover have shaken confidence, which will take time to rebuild.

Investigations are still underway for two of the five complaints flagged by OSC. The most recent – referred to the VA Secretary on March 5 – involves the failure of a radiologist to read thousands of X-rays and MRIs, ultimately contributing to missed diagnoses of serious, even fatal, illnesses. As the OSC letter notes, hospital management learned of this negligence but never made an effort to contact affected patients and ensure remedial care.

Such threats to veterans’ well-being are inexcusable. At my request, a “town hall” meeting has been tentatively scheduled for early April with Under Secretary Petzel in Jackson to give the public a chance to discuss the problems that still exist. I am hopeful that this meeting will help restore veterans’ confidence in the medical care that they receive at the Jackson VA.

The Jackson VA has in the past ranked among the best VA facilities. Upholding this reputation is important to fulfilling the promises made to the men and women in Mississippi who have honorably served our country.

For inspiration, we need not look further than the legacy tied to the medical center’s name. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, who served during World War II and the Korean War, came to be known as “Mr. Veteran” on Capitol Hill because of his tireless advocacy on behalf of our service members. Honoring his work means securing the best standards of care for our veterans – at the Jackson VA and at VA medical centers across the country.

» Roger Wicker is a senator for the state of Mississippi.

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