Most medical centers serving veterans across the country are improving, according to a once-withheld rating system just released by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet, the ratings show several facilities racked by scandal continue to struggle.
Of the 146 medical centers rated, 120 of them, or 82 percent, improved in the past year, according to the VA. But the Phoenix hospital, the epicenter of the 2014 wait-time scandal, was one of the worst rated, and the hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin – another one that has recently come under fire – saw a drop in performance this year.
The performance ratings were released to the public under pressure following an investigation by USA Today earlier this month that revealed the ratings were being held, undisclosed, within the VA.
The VA gave a one- to five-star rating to 146 VA medical centers across the country indicating their quality-of-care at the end of 2016. The information posted online also shows whether each hospital improved since the end of 2015.
USA Today included the 2015 ratings in their report.
The report prompted several lawmakers – including Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich. -- to call for the information to be publicly released. The John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit -- named for Debbie Dingell’s husband, former Rep. John Dingell -- was given the lowest rating, one star, for 2015 and 2016.
“Veterans, just like every other patient, deserve to know how their hospitals are performing and what services need to be improved,” Dingell and Walberg wrote last week in a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “Having a secret rating system only serves to increase distrust of the VA and may give the appearance that the department has something to hide.”
Since early 2015, the VA has posted sets of data to its website called Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning. VA leaders used the data, which tracks issues such as death rates, patient satisfaction and efficiency, to create the newly released ratings previously kept internal.
To justify keeping the ratings from public view, the VA said it did so because the information “would likely confuse our veterans and the general public.”
VA leaders called USA Today irresponsible for posting the 2015 ratings, and said it released new 2016 ratings “in an effort to set the record straight.”
Because the star ratings are relative and compare VA hospitals to one another, “somebody is always going to be on the bottom,” McDonald said last week at a public forum.
“It is a disservice to veterans to lead them to believe that a one-star facility means they won’t get care they need,” said David Shulkin, the VA’s under secretary for health.
Seventeen of the 146 medical centers earned 5-star ratings, the highest given, and 10 received one-star ratings. Some of the best included the Boston VA medical center and hospitals in Minneapolis, Pittsburg and Cleveland. The worst-performing included Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and all three Tennessee hospitals in Memphis, Nashville and Murfreesboro.
Five medical centers -- El Paso, Texas; Fargo, North Dakota; Hot Springs, South Dakota; Tomah, and San Diego -- had a “large decline” in quality.
The Tomah VA came under fire last year for overprescribing opioids. Earlier this month, the VA alerted nearly 600 patients in Tomah that they could be at risk for hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV because a dentist did not correctly disinfect his equipment.
On Wednesday, conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America issued a statement about the ratings, calling for more transparency from the VA. The veterans group has become more prominent recently after several people linked to the CVA were appointed to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
“The VA has an obligation to care for and honor the men and women who have served their country, and that includes being completely honest about the quality of care being provided,” CVA director Mark Lucas said in a written statement. “The VA should not have to come under pressure by the media to disclose what should already be public information.”