Tallahassee

Gov. Rick Scott to sue feds for ‘stonewalling’ state health inspectors from VA hospitals

 

The governor says the Department of Veterans Affairs is stonewalling state health care inspectors who want access to VA hospitals.

Tampa Bay Times

Florida will sue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency is “stonewalling” state healthcare 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 no state has oversight of federal hospitals.

Inspectors for the state Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) 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 in 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.

Earlier this month, Hollingsworth sent a statement to news outlets 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 that a spokeswoman for the Haley VA hospital confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times that the VA’s inspector general had visited the facility a week ago. What the inspector general was investigating at Haley is unclear. A hospital spokeswoman referred questions to the inspector general’s office, which did not return calls for comment.

The IG said earlier this month that it is investigating 26 VA facilities nationally on a variety of allegations, from treatment delays to falsified records.

Scott’s office did not say when the VA lawsuit would be filed, but its announcement ensures that veterans’ care will figure prominently in Scott’s reelection campaign. Democrat Charlie Crist, Scott’s likely opponent, is attacking the Republican Scott for refusing to expand Medicaid, saying this has 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 healthcare they deserve by expanding Medicaid.”

A recent letter sent to state officials by the VA’s top attorney, Will Gunn, said, “It is my understanding that AHCA representatives have continued to arrive unannounced at VA medical centers within the state of Florida. 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 Tampa Bay Times on Saturday reported the story of a Largo veteran, Horace Lalley, a patient at the Young VA hospital, 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.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

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