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Be thankful somebody watches out for veterans

Published March 19, 2006

The motto of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - "to care for him who shall have borne the battle" - comes from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in March 1865. You might recognize the passage:

With malice toward none, with charity for all,

with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,

let us strive on to finish the work we are in,

to bind up the nation's wounds,

to care for him who shall have borne the battle

and for his widow, and his orphan,

to do all which may achieve and cherish

a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Here in the Tampa Bay area we have two big VA hospitals. The Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg is one of the nation's busiest.

But the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa is THE nation's busiest. It's located on a crowded but pleasant campus off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in North Tampa. A skywalk across the road links it to the University of South Florida.

Haley has 327 hospital beds and 300 nursing home beds (some in Orlando). It has a cutting-edge "polytrauma" center that specializes in the kinds of wounds that occur in modern warfare. There's an advanced spinal injury service and too many other programs to list.

Thousands of people walk through these doors every week. In the vast majority of cases, things work as they should. Sure, there's bureaucracy and a lot of waiting. But over the years I've heard from plenty of veterans who fiercely defended the care they got from the VA.

There also are exceptions, vets who did not think they got good care, or felt that they got lost in the system. There have been scandals now and then, even demonstrably bad doctors whose "punishment" was to be transferred somewhere else.

This brings us to current matters at Haley. There have been enough scandals, problems and mishaps to rise to the level of serious concern. St. Petersburg Times reporter Paul de la Garza has reported incident after incident:

In February, surgeons at Haley mistakenly implanted an unsterilized cranial plate in a patient and almost repeated the mistake a week later. (Just about the last words in the world I want to hear in a hospital are "unsterilized cranial plate.")

There's an ongoing inquiry into the hospital's police force, including allegations of civil rights violations and officers involved in identity theft.

There's already a federal indictment alleging kickbacks among contractors at Haley's spinal center.

The VA is investigating an anonymous, but amazingly specific, letter listing dates and the names of surgeons who allegedly left patients waiting under anesthesia while they tended to other things.

There have been various inquiries into reports of patient injuries (falling in the hospital and waiting 20 minutes to be discovered) or even death.

If all this were happening on my ship, I would be making a big, public deal out of setting it straight. The VA has an Inspector General's Office, but so far it has not exactly - this might be the wrong choice of words - cracked heads together.

As for the VA's top man, Secretary Jim Nicholson, he is a political appointee, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. No doubt, by Washington standards, he is doing a heck of a job.

You know who seems to be paying attention? I do not say this often: Congress, and in particular, the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Our own Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, is chairman of its oversight subcommittee.

After the incident involving the unsterilized cranial plate, several committee members, Republican and Democrat alike, signed a stern letter demanding an investigation and answers by April 12.

In no way do I mean disrespect to the dedicated people at Haley who are taking care of America's veterans. But I hope Bilirakis and the House committee ride the VA hard, focus the public's attention on these problems, and get the answers.

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:06:13]

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