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‘Unacceptable,’ Collins says in letter to VA chief

WASHINGTON – Federal auditors have found a host of problems at a Veterans Administration psychiatric clinic on Main Street in Buffalo, ranging from a doubling of wait times for new patients to improper documentation for the needles used there to improper sanitation.

The Office of Inspector General at the VA found those problems at the VA’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation Recovery Center, 2963 Main St. The facility treats veterans with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some 280 veterans sought treatment there in fiscal 2015, the VA said, which is far fewer than at the Buffalo VA Medical Center on Bailey Avenue. But Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence – noting that the critical audit follows reports about reused insulin pens at the local VA hospital in 2012 and other issues reported there – said the troubles were so serious that Brian G. Stiller, the VA’s medical director in Buffalo, should be fired.

“Why is Brian Stiller still employed?” Collins asked Thursday. “We expect to see heads roll.”

Most notably, auditors found that wait times for new patients for first appointments at the facility went from 6.3 days in October of 2014 to 13.2 days in September of last year.

“This is tragic for our veterans and our families,” Collins said.

VA officials blamed the delays on the caseload at the facility, and said they were doing all they could to ensure that veterans get prompt treatment.

“We have a 24-hour emergency department if there is an urgent need for care,” said Evangeline E. Conley, public affairs officer for the VA Western New York Healthcare System. As for the delays, “we take this very seriously and monitor veterans’ wait times for care on a daily basis to improve our processes and work with veterans and community providers to get veterans seen if we can’t provide the care in the needed time frame,” she added.

Collins seemed most concerned about the auditors’ finding that “managers did not document their consideration and implementation of safety needle devices.”

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, Collins said: “It is unacceptable for a medical facility to fail to have proper disposal devices and, given the Buffalo VA’s previous lack of safety protocol for used needles, the absence of a solution to correct this is a serious problem.”

But VA officials downplayed the issue, saying that the audit didn’t mean that unclean or improper needles were used at the facility, just that managers were not documenting the needles being used.

“The facility is now documenting that providers are aware of that they have options related to which safety needle they elect to utilize,” Conley said.

Collins also upbraided the VA for sanitation issues at the clinic, given that the audit found that managers did not make sure staff members washed their hands, did not keep hand hygiene products accessible for employees and allowed areas used by patients to remain dirty.

“It’s like they’re in the Dark Ages,” Collins said of the local VA operation.

VA officials said, though, that the sanitation issues had been addressed, in part, by removing obsolete soap dispensers so that people wouldn’t confuse them with the new, operative ones.

Collins has harshly criticized VA operations in Buffalo ever since he entered Congress in January 2013.

Stiller has been the head of the local VA health system since the spring of 2012, and Conley defended him. “He’s a veteran himself,” she said, “and he wants to make everything right for veterans.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, whose district includes the facility that was audited, took a more measured approach to the situation than Collins, saying he wanted to meet with Stiller to discuss the issues auditors found.

Asked whether he thought Stiller should be fired, Higgins said: “I’m more concerned about a fix. A change in management doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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