VHA Budget Cuts Threaten Veteran Safety
By Suzanne Gordon | Sep 15, 2017
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is considering budget cuts that could jeopardize patient safety in the nation’s largest health-care system. On the chopping block are ten VA Patient Safety Centers of Inquiry (PSCIs), facilities that have long pioneered innovations to reduce injury, addiction, and suicide that have impacted patients far beyond the VA system. While the administration claims such goals are high priorities, these facilities could be shut down by September 30.
The potential closure of these patient safety centers is part of a broader attempt to cut costs within the nation’s largest health-care system. Surging demand for services at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the high cost of paying for expensive, outsourced care in the private sector through the Veterans Choice and other Community Medical Care programs has caused a significant budget shortfall in VHA facilities across the country.
Despite this shortfall, Trump refuses to go to Congress for more money than currently budgeted for the VHA. Now VA leadership is focused on shifting pots of money from what are known as specific-purpose budgets (which includes the PSCI’s small $2.5 million budget) to general-purpose budgets. In the case of these patient safety centers, this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach will hurt veterans rather than help them. Since the VHA’s leadership in patient safety extends way beyond VHA facilities and the patients served by them, this move may also impact millions of non-veterans who also benefit from VHA research and safety practices.
In a country where more than 250,000 patients die each year due to preventable medical errors (which are America’s third leading cause of death) and more than 1.5 million are seriously injured, the VHA has become a beacon of progress in patient safety. Since the mid-1990s, the VHA has been “a bright star in the constellation of safety practice, with system-wide implementation of safe practices, training programs,” according to physicians and patient safety leaders Donald Berwick and Lucian Leape.
As patient safety leaders have long documented, turning theory into safe practice involves way more than passing around scientific journal articles, or writing patient safety policies and protocols. Motivating front-line caregivers to do everything from cleaning their hands to prescribing opioids safely involves putting what is known as evidence-based medicine and best practices into actual daily use.
Today, at the veterans hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, the Patient Safety Center of Inquiry has developed tools aimed at sharing critical information about the early warning signs of suicidal behavior among veterans. Their counterparts in Durham, North Carolina, are trying to target extremely painful surgical procedures, like the knee replacement operations so common in the aging veteran, and help surgeons manage patients’ pain without overreliance on addictive opioids. One goal of this program is to keep former members of the armed forces from adding to the grim national death toll of the opioid epidemic.
At the PSCI in Tampa, Florida, VHA researchers are designing new tools to reduce the risk that older veterans will fall and break a hip, either in their own homes or an in-patient setting. Meanwhile, the PSCI in Boston is developing ways to reduce exposure to potentially fatal hospital-acquired infections like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
VHA safety leaders say they are stunned by the proposed closure of their PSCIs. “VA leadership is looking for easy answers and quick solutions and are not taking the time to fully understand the consequences of their actions,” a long-time VA patient safety researcher told The American Prospect. “They are so focused on issues of access that they don’t ask questions about what kind of system patients have access to.”
Doctors like Lucian Leape share these fears. In a letter to VA leadership, Leape protested the potential closure of PSCIs, praising the centers’ “important contributions,” and said he echoed the “concern of other patient safety leaders nationwide that losing the PSCI program would terminate one of the most efficient and productive translational safety programs in the VA.” Hopefully, the Trump administration will not decide to pinch pennies at the expense of veterans’ lives.