Florida will sue the Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency is "stonewalling" state health care inspectors who have been denied access to veterans hospitals, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday.
The announcement sets up a legal fight between Florida officials who say they need access to VA facilities and records to protect veterans and VA leaders who insist that no state has oversight of federal hospitals.
And it ensures that veteran care will figure prominently in Scott's current re-election bid. Democrat Charlie Crist, Scott's likely opponent, is attacking the Republican governor for refusing to expand Medicaid. That, Crist said, denies veterans medical care even as Scott rails against the VA.
State Agency for Health Care Administration inspectors have been turned away from several VA hospitals in Florida in recent months, including the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center near Seminole.
"We're committed to being the most veteran-friendly state in the nation, and reports of deaths, neglect, poor conditions and a secret waiting list in federal VA hospitals in Florida are unacceptable," Scott said in a written statement. "Transparency and accountability are critical to supporting our veterans, and this suit will fight the federal VA's continued practice of stonewalling our inspectors."
VA regional spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth declined to comment. Hollingsworth sent a statement to news outlets this month defending VA care and denying reports of a secret waiting list at the VA hospital in Gainesville. She said audits of Florida VA hospitals "have indicated that our employees have exhibited nothing but passion and dedication to serving our veterans."
Scott's announcement comes the same day as a Haley spokeswoman confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times that the VA's Inspector General's Office visited the hospital a week ago. What the IG is investigating is unclear. A Haley spokeswoman referred questions to the IG Office, which did not return calls for comment.
The IG said this month that it is investigating 26 VA facilities nationally for a variety of allegations, from treatment delays to falsified records.
Crist said the state's failure to expand Medicaid denied medical care to 41,000 Florida veterans.
"The VA could do a better job," Crist said. "There's no question about that. … (Scott) ought to turn his focus, instead of suing people, on helping veterans in Florida and making sure they get the health care they deserve by expanding Medicaid."
Scott's office did not say when the VA lawsuit would be filed.
"It is my understanding that AHCA representatives have continued to arrive unannounced at VA medical centers within the state of Florida," said a recent letter sent to state officials by the VA's top attorney, Will Gunn. "Please be advised that VA and its medical centers are components of the federal government and as such are not subject to Florida laws."
The VA has been shaken in recent months by numerous allegations of poor care, wrongful deaths, secret waiting lists and delays in veterans receiving care at VA hospitals around the nation.
The Times on Saturday reported the story of a Largo veteran, Horace Lalley, a patient at the Young VA Medical Center, who died in 2012 of bladder cancer that his family says was misdiagnosed for years as a urinary tract infection. The VA is investigating the case.
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.