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Editorial: VA hospital secrecy and excuses a disservice to vets

New Mexico’s past, present and future are intertwined with our nation’s military and military veterans. There has been honor – more Medals of Honor awarded per capita than any other state. There has been sacrifice – the highest per-capita casualty rates in WWII and a heavy toll in the Bataan Death March, and 649 servicemen and women lost in conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan. There has been investment – four military bases, three national laboratories and an estimated 172,500 veterans.

And there has been a terrible disservice – because New Mexico is home to one of the 10 worst VA hospitals in the country. The Veterans Affairs Department ranks its 146 medical centers from one to five stars quarterly in Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning, or SAIL, reports. Albuquerque’s Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center, which cares for about 58,000 veterans, ranked in the bottom 10 in the second quarter, the most recent available. It joined nine other VA hospitals that earned just one star.

On one hand, VA officials refuse to make the full rankings public, claiming they are internal documents that determine which facilities are improving and which are not. (After USA Today obtained the rankings for the last quarter of 2015, VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin provided rankings for the second quarter, which ended June 30. In addition to the 10 one-star hospitals, 17 VA hospitals, mostly in the eastern part of the country, got five stars. The VA refused to provide rankings for two-, three- and four-star hospitals.)

On the other, VA officials try to spin the poor rankings as a simple bell curve that by design will always have some one-star hospitals, saying the ratings should not be used to help make health care choices.

But when your tax dollars pay for those hospitals and those evaluations, and when your hospital is at the bottom of a bell curve because it needs to improve in serious areas, including infection rates, mental health care, cardiovascular readmissions and access to urgent primary care appointments, you have every right to know how it is rated and why.

Remember, this is the same Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center where a 2014 audit found more than 1,000 veterans had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments. Where 21 of those veterans died while waiting to see a doctor. Where staff were encouraged to manipulate records and “underreport wait times” to make it seem like veterans were being seen by their doctors long before they actually were. Where the business manager who investigators found actively encouraged schedulers to “misreport” appointment wait times was promoted – twice.

So, to hear the guy who did the promoting, New Mexico VA Health Care System director Andrew Welch, say “veterans receiving care within the New Mexico VA Health Care System should feel very comfortable and confident about their VA health care” does not engender comfort or confidence.

It carries more weight to hear Secretary Jack R. Fox say in an op-ed Monday that “most veterans who come to my agency – the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services – tell me and my staff they’re actually satisfied with the care they’ve received at the facility.”

Welch also says the Murphy center has shown notable improvement in primary care appointment wait times, mortality rates and length of hospital stays. It needed to.

But as the VA hospital here works on improving its infection rates, mental health care, cardiovascular readmissions and access to urgent primary care appointments, it also needs to embrace transparency and accountability for the taxpayers who fund it and the military veterans who depend on it for their health care.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.