Two different stories continue to pour out of the James A. Haley VA Medical Center: the official line, and another one entirely from veterans who complain they cannot get appropriate care. While officials at the Tampa hospital claim that "zero patients" were rejected for outside care because of recent budget cuts, several veterans told the St. Petersburg Times that the hospital canceled services for them because of its financial problems. Members of Congress need to get the truth from Haley, and they should insist that the hospital's executives be more open with veterans and taxpayers.
Haley officials insisted that despite taking emergency steps to close a budget deficit that reached $47.5 million this year, the hospital had not rolled back its so-called fee basis program. That program enables veterans to receive care from third-party providers if Haley doesn't offer the service or is too busy to treat them. But in a story published Sunday, several veterans told the Times' William R. Levesque that Haley canceled preapproved appointments with outside providers because of budget cuts. That stands in direct contrast to assurances by a Haley spokeswoman to the Times that veterans "have not been denied care as a result of any budget constraints."
So which is it?
Haley declined to discuss the finances of its fee basis program in detail or discuss whether its spending restrictions were lifted when the new budget year began Oct. 1. But several veterans said they had their services cut. Marine Corps veteran Paul Cardillo, 70, said Haley canceled a followup appointment for his shoulder. "I got a call saying due to financial problems, they're canceling my authorization," he said. Another Marine Corps veteran, Charlie Kelley, 67, said he got the same call about an exam for his knee. Army veteran Bill Dennis said Haley refused to pay the full fees for his emergency treatment of an abnormal heart rhythm. Navy veteran Ken Seymour, 71, said a Haley physician authorized him to get a second surgical opinion — then the hospital wouldn't pay the $158 bill.
Internal documents also call into question Haley's insistence that the budget cuts affected "zero patients." On July 15, a memo was sent to all service chiefs in the hospital outlining "emergency measures" to close a deficit, including cutting back on fee basis treatment. In another memo several days later, Haley's fiscal department brought the hospital's new chief, Kathleen Fogarty, up to speed on the dire financial situation. Among the actions planned to reduce costs: limiting fee basis expenditures "to those only authorized as emergency."
Maybe the VA believes it can tell the public anything it wants. No wonder it so often retreats into a bunker mentality. But this is a public agency, and the public — and certainly veterans — deserves some answers. If Haley's new director isn't prepared to change the hospital's operating culture, then area members of Congress need to step in. It is long past the time for a dose of accountability.