Somebody needs to remind the people who run the James A. Haley VA Medical Center that they operate a public hospital. The hospital's administration refuses to acknowledge records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times that show the Tampa facility is facing a $17 million deficit. A hospital spokeswoman refused to answer questions — while insisting that no cuts would affect patient care. That sort of doublespeak doesn't cut it for the more than 116,000 veterans in the bay area who depend on Haley or for the taxpayers who keep the hospital operating.
This is no trivial matter. Records obtained by the Times' William R. Levesque show that Haley is taking "emergency" steps to close the deficit before the fiscal year ends next month. Among the cuts: $1.5 million from lab services, $130,000 from mental health programs and $48,000 from efforts to treat bacterial infection. Documents show that Haley has reduced its staff through attrition by 111 positions, curbed overtime and travel, deferred some maintenance and stopped the referral of veterans to outside medical providers except in cases of emergencies.
That looks like a significant pullback for any provider, but even more so for one of the nation's busiest veterans hospitals. Haley administrators should be out in the community candidly addressing these issues and calming concerns. Instead, they are ensconced in a bunker. A Haley spokeswoman scoffed Wednesday when asked if the hospital had any response to its reported money problems. Haley would not confirm any cuts. Nor would its spokeswoman explain why she claimed earlier this month that Haley had not run a deficit, a statement contradicted by Haley's own budget records.
The VA's regional office said it would provide "supplemental" funding to ensure that patient care at Haley is "uninterrupted." But it's unclear whether the VA will bail out Haley entirely before the fiscal year closes in September. The hospital has run deficits for at least three years, including a shortfall of about $40 million in 2009, records show. This is unacceptable for the ninth-busiest VA hospital in the nation.
Area veterans are not the only ones with a huge stake in Haley. Taxpayers have poured tens of millions of dollars into Haley in recent years for everything from advanced trauma and eye care to nursing programs and parking. The hospital has been without a permanent director since March 2010; the new boss, Kathleen Fogarty, who takes over next month, needs to set a new tone inside and outside the hospital. The public deserves straight and honest answers about how Haley is operating. If the hospital's new management team doesn't make that happen, area members of Congress such as Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, should demand an explanation and greater openness.