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Demand a fix for all veterans

Johnson City Press • Jan 30, 2019 at 8:15 AM

There are 146 government-run hospitals for veterans, including four in Tennessee. Of those, one has consistently maintained quality service while two are showing improvement. But the last is a repeated failure and it's time the state and federal governments either fixed it, or replaced it.

Every year the Veterans Administration rates its hospitals by one to five stars, based on such metrics as promptness of service, length of stay, reported accidents, patient satisfaction and patient mortality, among others. Those ratings used to be a closely held secret, but in 2016 a newspaper obtained and published them, whereupon the VA could no longer hide them.

The best VA hospital in the state — by far — is the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center at Mountain Home, serving East Tennessee. Only nine of those 146 hospitals received five stars in the 2018 performance ratings with 28 winning four stars. Those 37 hospitals represent the standard of performance that should be expected of every VA hospital system and for the past three years, Mountain Home has been among them.

We doubt Congressman Phil Roe would accept anything less of Mountain Home, which is in his district. Rep. Roe is not just a medical doctor and ex-military, but until last month was chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Last year Tennessee's other three VA hospitals, those in Memphis, Nashville and Murfreesboro, were rated among the worst in the entire VA system, receiving just one star. That forced renewed attention on their failings and the latest report shows significant improvement at Murfreesboro and Nashville which increased to two stars.

But Memphis remains among the worst of VA hospitals in the country, again receiving but one star and one of only five hospitals so rated. This, even after a new medical director was installed at Memphis 18 months ago and despite that the VA said a year ago it was taking an aggressive new approach to improving the system's worst hospitals.

The low rating at Memphis is in part due to high levels of patient death and medical complications, including bloodstream and staph infections. In short, veterans are dying at Memphis who quite likely wouldn't die at Mountain Home.

This should not stand. Rep. Roe and Rep. David Kustoff of Memphis wrote in a joint column published a year ago in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "We are concerned and outraged by the recent abysmal failures at the Memphis facility. The men and women who put on a uniform and fought for this country made a promise to serve; a promise to defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. In return, this country made a promise to care for the men and women who have borne the battle and to provide for their families."

It's now been another year. When will the VA act to fix whatever is wrong at its hospital in Memphis? When will the state demand it do so?

And, when will Rep. Roe and other members of Congress stand behind all veterans who put on the uniform? As difficult as it is to believe, some veterans are denied medical service because they earn too much, even in retirement. They are being punished by the VA for being too successful in life. That's something they weren't told when they took the oath to defend America, with their life if necessary.

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