Metro

Lawmakers demand secret VA nursing home data be released after report

Nick Bonanno pushed his father, Russ Bonanno, down the hallway at the VA in Bedford.
Kelsey Cronin
Nick Bonanno pushed his father, Russ Bonanno, down the hallway at the VA in Bedford.

WASHINGTON — Several members of Congress demanded Tuesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs release a full complement of nursing home data that the agency has kept hidden from the public for years, citing a recent USA Today and Boston Globe investigation into the state of care at VA facilities.

The VA pushed back Tuesday on the report, which was based on the agency’s own internal documents and facility ratings, by downplaying the findings and calling the story “fake news.”

Documents show that care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes scored worse on average than private-sector nursing homes on key quality indicators, including rates of antipsychotic drug prescription and residents’ deterioration.

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Following inquiries from USA Today and the Globe, the VA last week released some of its nursing home ratings, but not the underlying quality data, such as rates of infection and injury. The agency has tracked this information for years but kept it from public view.

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Several Democratic lawmakers — including Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well as US Representative Seth Moulton — called for the information to be released immediately.

“Widespread underperformance at VA nursing homes is a betrayal of veterans’ trust and wellbeing,” said Minnesota Representative Tim Walz, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “VA concealing this data from the public until news stories were about to be filed makes matters infinitely worse and is nothing more than fake transparency.”

Both the Republican-led House and Senate VA committees requested briefings from VA officials following the report. Those meetings are scheduled later this week, spokespeople for the committees said.

VA press secretary Curt Cashour, meanwhile, took to Twitter to claim that prior to President Trump’s administration, “you haven’t seen this much VA transparency or accountability” and called the story about the secret nursing home data “the definition of fake news.”

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Cashour on Tuesday claimed the story painted “a misleading picture of how our facilities actually compare with the private sector.”

The ratings showed that as of March 31, nearly half of VA nursing homes — 58 — received the lowest rating for quality in the agency’s rankings of one out of five stars.

He declined to answer questions about why the VA hasn’t released the nursing home quality data, inspection reports, or staffing data.

Cashour asserted that “overall,” the VA nursing home system “compares closely” with the private sector. But he said VA nursing homes score lower on key quality indicators because veterans are typically sicker than residents of private facilities.

“Also, private sector nursing homes admit patients selectively, whereas — unlike the private sector — VA will not refuse service to any eligible veteran, no matter how challenging the veteran’s conditions are to treat,” Cashour said.

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Moulton, an Iraq War veteran who receives health care at the Bedford, Mass., VA, said he has been pushing Republican leadership to conduct a field hearing at his facility. “It’s past time for more accountability for our vets,” he said.

“Veterans deserve the best health care in the world. Period. That means having more transparency than private providers, not less,” Moulton said. “The VA is doing many things well, but this is a clear example of where they are failing.”

The VA nursing home in Bedford was one of the worst in the country in the agency’s quality ratings last year, receiving one out of five stars, in part for giving so many residents
antipsychotic drugs, according to internal VA documents.

Markey criticized the VA for “not proactively communicating comprehensive information to the public” and asked VA officials for a briefing as soon as possible.

“Men, women and families who have sacrificed for our country deserve access to timely, quality information to provide a full picture of care, similar to what private nursing home facilities have made available for years,” Markey wrote Tuesday in a three-page letter to VA executive in charge Dr. Carolyn Clancy.

In an e-mail to Bedford VA employees sent Monday, director Joan Clifford wrote: “We are enormously proud of the work we have done and continue to do in addressing improvement opportunities. We thank you, as always, for your commitment and dedication to ensuring that Bedford VA continues to be a safe, supportive and caring place for all who come to us.”

The nursing home, she wrote, has reduced the use of drugs, reduced the incidence of pressure ulcers, and provided a restraint-free environment.

The VA nursing home in Tuskegee, Ala., also was among the worst in the country in the agency’s quality ratings last year, according to internal documents. Staff there lost track of Earl James Zook, 72, a dementia patient and known wander risk, who walked out a broken door on a secure ward in January 2017 and hasn’t been seen since.

“This information is shocking,” Alabama Senator Doug Jones said.

A bipartisan group of House members from Florida penned a letter to the VA Monday urging that care be improved at VA nursing homes in Tampa and Bay Pines, Fla., both one-star facilities in agency rankings. The lawmakers called the VA’s claim that veterans are sicker than private nursing home residents “simply insufficient.”

“We cannot tolerate sub-par quality of care for Veterans who have sacrificed so much,” wrote Republican Representative Gus Bilirakis and Democratic Representatives Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist.

Cashour, the VA spokesman, said the “VA appreciates the lawmakers’ concerns and will respond to them directly.”

Conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, which has generally been supportive of VA leadership under Trump, echoed lawmakers who said VA needs to open the books on its nursing homes.

“The more data that the VA can share, the better, because ultimately, at the end of the day, it helps veterans,” Dan Caldwell, executive director of the group, said in an interview. “It helps veterans determine whether or not they are getting the quality of care that they deserve.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.