New Mexico’s congressional delegation is demanding answers from the Veterans Administration after Albuquerque VA officials told congressional staffers this week that they must submit federal Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about VA health care policies.
All five delegation members – Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, Democratic Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan, and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce – signed a letter to Sloan D. Gibson, the acting VA secretary on Thursday. The letter said the Albuquerque VA’s insistence that members of Congress file official requests for information showed “an alarming ignorance or an utter disregard” for congressional oversight.
The letter stems from a conference call on Monday among staffers for the New Mexico congressional delegation and top staff at the Albuquerque VA, including interim Director Dr. James Robbins. Ongoing problems at the Albuquerque VA Hospital, punctuated by the June 30 death of Jim Napoleon Garcia, a Vietnam War veteran who suffered a heart attack in the hospital’s cafeteria on June 30 and died after waiting for an ambulance to arrive, prompted the conference call. The Department of Veterans Affairs remains under intense scrutiny for widespread reports of long delays for treatment and medical appointments and of veterans dying while on waiting lists.
“We have frequently asked the VA Hospital to provide us with its written policies and practices related to scheduling, patient wait time, bonus and performance award system, and general management issues including how schedulers are trained,” the letter said. “However, VA Hospital staff has repeatedly denied this information to us and most recently told our offices that we must file Freedom of Information Act requests for all written VA Hospital documentation. Such responses tremendously impede our constitutional responsibility to oversee the faithful execution of the laws we pass.”
After Garcia collapsed at the Albuquerque VA, an onlooker called 911 but VA staff did not mobilize an on-site VA Hospital EMS team to provide emergency medical services, the letter states.
“According to the VA, staff acted in accordance with an April 4, 2014 Medical Center Memorandum, which defines VA Hospital policy during medical emergencies on campus,” the delegation’s letter said. “However, when congressional staff asked for copies of the Medical Center Memo, VA Hospital staff withheld this material and asserted that the only way to obtain this information would be to file a FOIA request.”
Officials at the Albuquerque VA did not respond to a request for comment from the Journal on Thursday.
The congressional letter asks the VA to explain its policy “for training VA Hospital staff in responding to congressional inquiries.”
“Is it a common practice to condition disclosure of such information on a congressional office first filing a FOIA request,” the letter asks.
It also asks for clarity on why it won’t release the Medical Center Memo outlining its procedures for an on-site medical emergency, as well as other records pertaining to the ongoing VA crisis in scheduling appointments.
“If you are unable to comply with these requests, please explain how this is consistent with VA standards for sharing information with Congress and the millions of veterans served by the VA,” the letter said.
According to a document obtained by the Journal last week, a policy instituted in 2010 and signed by then-director George Marnell directs the VA medical center Code Blue Team 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. 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.