A federal investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) nursing homes has been launched only a month after USA TODAY and The Boston Globe issued their joint report revealing roughly half of the VA’s 133 nursing homes to have the lowest possible ranking in a secret scoring system.
The investigation, which will be led by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, seeks additional information as to the quality of the low-scoring federal nursing homes and the origin of the issues in hopes of identifying areas for improvement.
Representative Phil Roe (R-TN), Chairman of the House VA Committee, ordered the investigation himself, after claiming he was “disturbed” by the news reports. Roe was no doubt spurred on by his fellow representative, Vern Buchanan (R-FL), who urged Roe in a letter to launch such an investigation on the “shocking and unacceptable conditions” of VA homes and to consider “adopt[ing] tougher disclosure requirements to create greater transparency.”
“Such an investigation,” Rep. Buchanan wrote, “should leave no stone unturned in finding out how this happened in the first place and how it can be prevented in the future.”
VA Secrecy Leads to Federal Investigation
The joint USA TODAY-Boston Globe report revealed that 60 VA nursing homes were rated only 1 star out of a possible 5 stars for quality; this, according to the agency’s own, internal raking system. Notably, the patients living in these 60 nursing homes were found more likely to suffer pain and serious bedsores than their private-sector counterparts. These are major health concerns, and such complaints are often cited as elder neglect and VA nursing home abuse.
In addition, while the quality-of-care at a majority of private-sector nursing homes is very much left wanting, with low staffing levels, high turnover rates, and widespread violations, VA nursing homes still scored worse than private homes. VA homes scored lower in several key areas, notably rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription, decline in daily living skills, and rates of pain and infection.
Secrecy within the VA has a long history, a prime example of which is an incident in 2009, when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published findings from a VA report identifying “signification issues” at the VA nursing home in Philadelphia, which included violations of resident grooming and pest control. Subsequent public release of the VA’s findings was banned.
According to June 2018’s report, the VA tracked highly detailed nursing home quality data since at least 2011 but decided to withhold their internal data from the public. Their own ranking system was developed and instituted in 2016. In addition, the VA contracted with outside companies to inspect their nursing homes for over a decade but kept all resulting reports secret. Finally, after repeated inquiries from various news organizations, the VA released some of their internal data, which led to the internal investigations led by The Boston Globe and USA TODAY.
VA Cooperates… For Now
VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour, though cagey on some requests for comment, seemed to embrace the House committee investigation, saying, “[The VA] welcomes the committee’s oversight…. We look forward to informing the committee about the care we provide veterans in our nursing homes.” Cashour also indicated a willingness on behalf of the VA to now release more documents after inquiries from USA TODAY and The Boston Globe.
Cashour’s statements follow fast on the heels of nearly a dozen lawmakers who have all sought more information from the VA. After last month’s investigation was published, several senators co-sponsored new legislation that would force the VA to release all of its nursing home data, information, and rankings on an ongoing basis moving forward. The proposal passed the Senate last month and moved to the House, where lawmakers will need to pass it before it becomes law.
The House committee plans to hold a public hearing on their findings this coming fall and will likely release more details as their investigations progresses. One can only hope, that with the VA’s cooperation, this unacceptable oversight – of failing to protect the brave men and women who have served our country – can be remedied. After all, the VA runs federal nursing homes in 46 states and cares for some 46,000 U.S. veterans each year.
Interested in learning more about your own VA nursing home, or finding data for a nearby federal facility? Use this tool developed by USA TODAY, which allows users to easily search over 1500 records of federally-run nursing homes. That tool can be found here.