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AHCA Sues for VA Hospital Access

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Bobbie O'Brien
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

State officials who have been blocked in their attempts to inspect federal Veterans Affairs hospitals in Florida filed a lawsuit Thursday aimed at giving them such access as they seek to confirm allegations of substandard care.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration filed suit in a federal court in Tampa, on the same day that Acting federal VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced the agency will release nationwide data on patient wait times next week. Gibson made the announcement Thursday during a visit to the Phoenix health care facility that was the initial focus of recent widespread complaints over veterans and wait times.

Florida health officials made several unannounced visits to inspect Florida's six VA hospitals and other VA-operated facilities in April and May. VA officials blocked them each time. In letters to Gov. Rick Scott and the state agency's secretary, Elizabeth Dudek, they said that federal facilities aren't subject to state laws.

The lawsuit also says the VA has not responded to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"The VA's refusal to permit any such inspection or respond to FOIA public records requests, in the face of an ever-growing body of consumer complaint evidence, has led AHCA to be reasonably concerned that the VA is failing the very population it is charged by Congress with protecting: America's veterans and their families," the lawsuit said, using the acronym for the state agency.

The VA's public affairs office did not immediately return a telephone call or email requesting comment.

The state visited VA hospitals in West Palm Beach, Bay Pines, Miami, Lake City, Gainesville and Tampa in April and returned to the Gainesville hospital in May.

One of the plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit is Nancy Hall, who served in the U.S. Army from 1984 until 1987, when she was honorably discharged. She received VA-funded hospital care and medical services at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.

The lawsuit states that Hall experienced "substantial" delays in receiving treatment, especially on nights and weekends. Hall's husband, also a veteran, was diagnosed with tongue cancer and died in 2005.

"After determining his cancer was terminal, Haley VA Medical Center employees apologized to Hall for not treating her husband's cancer aggressively enough," the lawsuit said. "According to Hall, the treatment of her husband's cancer felt as though the medical staff were simply 'going through the motions.' "

Another plaintiff, Roland Dickerson, received care at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg. The Army veteran has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and heart problems, and was required to undergo emergency bypass surgery at Tampa General Hospital, a non-VA hospital, the lawsuit said.

Before going to that hospital, Dickerson tried to obtain treatment at another, non-VA hospital but was told that the hospital would not treat him due to "previous poor medical care at Bay Pines."

"As a result of the poor care Dickerson has received at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, Dickerson's wife has resorted to buying costly private insurance so that Dickerson may receive quality medical treatment at non-VA facilities outside the St. Petersburg area," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says that state health officials "have an unambiguous statutory duty to investigate complaints relating to violation of Florida public health and safety laws, and to inspect hospitals that are the subject of such complaints."

Against the backdrop of nationwide concerns with veterans' care, some members of Florida's congressional delegation have asked local VA hospitals about wait times and secret waiting lists. One VA facility in Chicago is facing allegations that its staff used such lists to conceal long patient wait times for appointments.

Congressman David Jolly, R-Florida, sent a letter to the director of Bay Pines, asking if there are secret lists at the facility.

"I have no awareness to a 'secret list' and have been proactive with my engagement of leaders and staff regarding my expectations of transparency, accountability and responsibility," Bay Pines Director Suzanne Klinker wrote Thursday.