TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott's election-season push against the veterans hospital system continued Friday as he appeared with two Republican congressmen to announce that a hearing on patient safety at the facilities will be held in Tampa.
Although he has no authority over the federal system of hospitals for veterans, Scott has spent the last month hammering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after it reported five deaths due to delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment at its facilities in the region that includes Florida, Puerto Rico and part of Georgia. None occurred in the Tampa Bay area.
He has held news conferences outside VA grounds and dispatched state inspectors to the facilities, which are under federal, not state, jurisdiction.
Though Scott is seeking re-election to the governor's mansion, the VA campaign is not his only federal target. He has been campaigning against President Barack Obama for months, hitting him on issues ranging from Obamacare to Medicare to Venezuela.
On Friday, he was joined at an American Legion post by Florida Republican congressmen Jeff Miller and David Jolly. Scott is the reason, Miller said, that the House Committee on Veterans Affairs will hold a field hearing in Tampa later this year.
"Governor, I can't say thank you enough for bringing attention to an issue that is unfortunately not just specific to the state of Florida," Miller said.
Scott said there has been a lack of transparency about potential threats to patients. "The problem is, we're not getting any information about what's going on," he said.
Though the VA has long faced problems with delays, it has also won kudos for making strides in the quality of the care it provides. Even Scott wouldn't say that veterans should stop using the facilities over the latest questions. "They should be going to the VA but when they walk in they should ask, 'What's happened here?' " he said.
He repeated his requests that the VA allow inspectors from Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration to examine VA facilities.
But the Florida agency has recently made it harder for consumers to get information about hospitals around the state that it does have the authority to inspect.
In November, the agency removed from its website inspection reports detailing violations. Consumers who in the past could simply go online to check out a hospital must now make a public records request for those reports, a potentially cumbersome and time-consuming process.
The "statement of deficiencies" reports show problems discovered by state inspectors during routine visits and investigations prompted by complaints. They can include issues such as sanitary conditions and physicians working without proper credentials. They also can include potentially deadly medication errors.
State officials blame a federal law aimed at protecting patient privacy for the reports' removal.
"Based upon federal guidance and clarification of (legal) requirements … the agency is reviewing its data release and redaction procedures," said agency spokeswoman Shelisha Coleman.
But the federal government lets states decide whether to post inspection reports online, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid said.
Scott said Friday he didn't know the reports had been removed and promised he would look into it.
"I believe in transparency," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.