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At Gov. Rick Scott's behest, state sues feds for right to inspect VA hospitals

TAMPA — At the behest of Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration sued the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday so its inspectors can gain access to Florida's veterans hospitals.

The lawsuit accuses the VA of providing substandard medical care to two Tampa Bay veterans, the only patients named in the suit, whose treatment failed to meet the "minimum standards of patient safety."

The suit alleging poor VA medical care was filed despite AHCA officials never having seen or requesting the medical file of at least one of the two veterans, Roland "Dale" Dickerson, 60, of Largo, according to Dickerson and his wife.

Dickerson, who said the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole delayed his lifesaving heart surgery for two years, has a copy of his complete VA medical file, which he recently provided to the Tampa Bay Times.

Asked why the file was not reviewed, an ACHA spokeswoman said the veterans in the suit "are entitled to their privacy" and that the suit is not a medical malpractice action.

The second veteran named in the suit, Nancy Hall of Hillsborough County, could not be reached to comment. Hall was a patient at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.

ACHA inspectors in recent months have been turned away from VA hospitals across the state, including Haley and the Young VA, when they appeared for unannounced inspections. The inspections, the state says, were attempted after complaints of poor care by veterans.

The VA, which says state officials have no jurisdiction over the federal agency, declined to comment about the suit.

The state's lawsuit said Hall and Dickerson, and other veterans like them, have been denied due process and equal protection rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

"The VA's refusal to permit any such inspection or respond to (the state's) public records requests, in the face of an ever-growing body of consumer complaint evidence, has led AHCA to be reasonably concerned that the VA is failing the very population it is charged by Congress with protecting — America's veterans and their families," says the suit, filed in Tampa's U.S. District Court.

"The VA is, in essence, left to hold itself accountable for its own duties. In this, it has failed," the suit says.

The suit also notes that state officials have received numerous complaints from veterans in Florida about long waiting lists, unsanitary conditions and improper medical care at the state's six VA hospitals.

The VA is under intense pressure nationally over allegations ranging from wrongful patient deaths to the manipulation of data showing how long patients wait to see doctors.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last month.

Hall, the suit says, has faced difficulty getting treatment for shoulder pain and sleep apnea at Haley, especially at night and on weekends. The suit says Haley officials apologized to her after her husband, also a veteran, died of cancer in 2005 that the VA did not treat aggressively enough.

Dickerson said Young VA officials ignored a partial coronary blockage for two years despite tests pointing to severe heart problems. Dickerson said a heart stent might have been all he needed in the beginning.

By the time doctors responded, Dickerson said, he needed open-heart surgery, which he underwent successfully two years ago.

Both he and his wife support the state's lawsuit. State lawyers became aware of them after they wrote emails to Scott's office.

"The suit is not just about me, Dickerson said. "There are a lot of veterans like me. We all paid our dues. It's time to get a little respect for what we did."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

At Gov. Rick Scott's behest, state sues feds for right to inspect VA hospitals 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:10pm]
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