ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A veteran who collapsed in a cafeteria at Albuquerque’s Veterans Affairs hospital died after waiting 20 to 25 minutes to get to the same hospital’s emergency room, located about 500 yards away, a VA spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.
An Albuquerque Fire Department spokeswoman said it took an ambulance about 11 minutes to be dispatched and arrive at the cafeteria, which is about a five-minute walk from the emergency room, officials at the hospital said. VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown said VA staff told her that at least 20 minutes elapsed between the man’s medical episode and when he arrived at the ER.
Kirtland Air Force Medical Group personnel, who regularly eat lunch at the cafeteria, performed CPR until the ambulance arrived, Brown said.
Staff followed policy in calling 911 when the man collapsed on Monday, she said.
“Our policy is under expedited review,” Brown said.
Brown said the policy is a local one, and Jean Schaefer, spokeswoman for the Phoenix-based regional VA network, said these types of medical center policies vary across VA campuses, depending on what facilities are there.
National Veterans Affairs representatives did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The man’s name hasn’t been released.
News of the man’s death at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center spread Thursday among veterans who were visiting the center for various medical reasons.
Lorenzo Calbert, 65, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, said it was sad that a fellow veteran had to die so close to where he could have received help.
“There’s no reason for it,” he said. “They have so many workers. They could have put him on the gurney and run faster than that ambulance.”
An Albuquerque Fire Department spokeswoman said law prohibits disclosing how long it took for the ambulance to get from the cafeteria to the hospital. She also said Albuquerque Ambulance arrived before AFD, and a spokeswoman there said the ambulance arrived “well within” 10 minutes, which Brown said is unlikely.
However, Brown said that, if the ambulance company and AFD are correct about their response times, it would have taken at least 10 minutes for the veteran to be driven the 500 yards between the cafeteria to the hospital.
Under a policy instituted in 2010 and signed by then-director George Marnell, the VA medical center Code Blue Team is to respond to medical emergencies in six buildings on the 88-acre property off of San Pedro SE. The buildings include the main hospital in Building 41, but the cafeteria or canteen aren’t mentioned.
Code Blue Team members include a physician, an intensive care unit nurse, a health technician, a nursing supervisor, an anesthesiologist, a respiratory therapist and a pharmacist, if needed.
The policy goes on to state: “For medical emergencies out of the Code Blue Team response areas, the Albuquerque EMS system via 911 will be activated,” the policy states. Outpatients or non-patients responded to by Albuquerque EMS who have suffered a cardiac and/or respiratory arrest will be transported to the VA medical center’s emergency department, the policy adds.
Outpatients or non-patients who haven’t suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest will be transported per Albuquerque EMS protocols. And all medical emergencies involving children regardless of the location on the VA Medical Center campus are to be dealt with by Albuquerque EMS via a 911 call.
The policy requires medical center staff who witness a life-threatening event to give CPR or emergency aid regardless of the location. Staff members are to remain with the individual until emergency help arrives.
Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Thursday, saying her office has been trying for two days to get information from the VA about “whether its policy may have contributed to the delay in care.
“In any case, the inability of officials to answer basic questions in a timely fashion is yet another reason the public has lost faith, and why we are demanding an outside investigation and immediate reform at the Albuquerque VA.”
The death comes as the Department of Veterans Affairs remains under scrutiny for widespread reports of long delays for treatment and medical appointments and of veterans dying while on waiting lists.
A review last week cited “significant and chronic system failures” in the nation’s health system for veterans. The review also portrayed the struggling agency as one battling a corrosive culture of distrust, lacking in resources and ill-prepared to deal with an influx of new and older veterans with a range of medical and mental health care needs.
The scathing report by Deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors said the Veterans Health Administration, the VA sub agency that provides health care to about 8.8 million veterans a year, has systematically ignored warnings about its deficiencies and must be fundamentally restructured.
Marc Landy, a political science professor at Boston College, said the Department of Veterans Affairs is a large bureaucracy with various local policies like the one under review in Albuquerque.
Although the agency needs to undergo reform, Landy said it’s unfair to attack the VA too harshly on the recent Albuquerque death, because it appears to be so unusual.
“I think we have to be careful,” he said. “Let’s not beat up too much on the VA while they are already facing criticism.”