(Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
PITTSBURGH – Democratic U.S. Reps. Summer Lee and Chris Deluzio, and U.S. Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey sent a letter to the director of the Veterans Administration Pittsburgh Healthcare System on Tuesday seeking answers about “challenges” facing the system that serves some 84,000 veterans in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The lawmakers asked VAPHS Director Donald Koenig to address the center’s recent low rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) — the lowest possible rating— and what they termed “chronic” staffing shortages. They also raised concerns about the suicide of a patient on site last year.
The letter asks Koenig to develop and report action plans to address the issues.
“We appreciate your efforts to improve VAPHS and address some of its pressing needs, including chronic staffing shortages, opening a new outpatient clinic in Monroeville, and the critical structural issues at the 70-year old University Drive hospital,” the letter states. “Despite these efforts, challenges remain — some unique to VAPHS and others related to the VA health care system as a whole — degrading the system’s ability to provide the vital care both needed and expected by the region’s veterans.”
Among the issues the letter cites:
- Posting open job positions “consistently takes significant time,” and the facility is short-handed in several key areas, including nursing, behavioral health, medical support assistance, and housekeeping.
- VAPHS was one of only nine VA Medical Centers and Healthcare Systems rated to receive a one-star rating from the CMS among 114 in the nation. The lawmakers acknowledged this was the first year VA facilities were rated on the same scale as non-VA health providers, and that the metrics used gave a “dated view” of VAPHS’ performance, but asked Koenig for his plans to improve the rating.
- A lack of vehicles, including handicap-accessible vehicles, to take veterans to and from appointments, and for other needs.
- On Oct. 10, a man the lawmakers’ letter identifies as a veteran died by suicide after bringing a gun to a VA hospital in O’Hara, near Pittsburgh. The lawmakers write that they have heard from employees at the facility that communication about the incident and the review that followed “left room for improvement,” and asked for a briefing from Koening.
Koenig is the VAPHS’ sixth executive director in the past five years, the lawmakers’ letter notes.
VAPHS spokesperson Shelley Kay Nulph said in a statement emailed to the Capital-Star that the organization was reviewing the letter and would “respond directly to the Senators and Representatives in writing as soon as we are able. We appreciate the oversight from our congressional representatives, which helps us better serve Veterans, and we are always willing to meet with them to discuss these and any other questions they may have.”
In 2012 the VAPHS made national headlines when an outbreak of Legionnaires disease led to the deaths of six patients and sickened 16 others. The incident and its mishandling led to the firing of its then-director Terry Gerigk Wolf.
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