VA reports show veterans face deficiencies in 93 percent of nursing homes

Elizabeth Howe
April 10, 2019 - 11:56 am

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

From bed sores to veterans moaning in pain to water temperatures up to 128 degrees, those are just some of what is described in newly released reports detailing the care of veterans at Veterans Affairs nursing homes throughout the country. 

Donovan Slack of USA Today and Andrea Estes of The Boston Globe spent nine months working to have VA's nursing home inspection reports released to the public. 

"By the sheer numbers, there were 52 VA nursing homes where inspectors had found actual harm to veterans," Slack told Connecting Vets. "That's a rare rating when compared with the private sector nursing homes. Only a fraction get cited for deficiencies that rise to that level."

VA didn't release all of its reports — only 99 of 134. But of those 99 facilities, only 7 showed no evidence of deficiencies. That means at the remainder of these 99 facilities, veteran patients are experiencing deficient conditions. The reports described everything from bed sores to veterans moaning in pain to water temperatures up to 128 degrees. 

And none of these reports were available to the public until Slack and Estes began investigating.

"It differed considerably from the private sector which, for years, thousands of nursing homes across the country have had to have their quality data and inspections released," Slack said. "There's a federal website called Nursing Home Compare and families, prospective residents, and members of Congress can all go online and see what's up with their local nursing home. But they can't have that with the VA nursing home — at least until we did our investigation."

Even with this information, though, there's a lot more that still hasn't been released. While the VA has pledged to release the addition 35 reports by October, there are three prior years of data VA has declined to release. 

"We don't have prior years. We don't know if this has been going on for years — if these are repeat deficiencies," Slack said. "In the private sector, those nursing homes have 3 years worth of inspection reports publicly released so you can see — did they have a problem with bed sores two years ago and they're still having it? Is this a one-time thing or is it something that's been going on for years and hasn't been addressed?"

Slack and Estes requested those previous years of data for exactly those reasons and were denied. 

"I believe their statement was that only the most recent reports were important," Slack said. 

VA also released a statement with the reports explaining the unique needs of veterans could make them more difficult to care for. 

“Overall, VA’s nursing home system compares closely with private sector nursing homes, though the department on average cares for sicker and more complex patients in its nursing homes than do private facilities,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says in the released statement.

"The specialist we spoke with said that is no excuse," Slack said. "Even if you have more complex issues — as certainly many veterans do — you should not be getting bed sores which happen to frail people who aren't moved enough."

Even though there are large gaps in the information that VA has made available, Slack hopes that what has been released will be enough to effect change within the system. 

"The key is that the data is now out there — at least for these 99. Now it's available to veterans, to members of Congress, to veteran service organizations who can start to ask questions about the nursing homes and bring accountability that they were not able to before."

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