With $16.3B, Why Are Veterans Still Waiting for Care?

By ThinkReliability Staff

Concerns regarding the timeliness of treatment within the Veterans Administration (VA)’s network of hospitals and clinics have been around nearly as long as the VA itself. In 1995, a goal was set to have veterans seen for appointments within 30 days. VA doctors’ and executives’ bonuses are based at least in part on meeting timeliness targets. Many believe this is a key reason that waiting lists were doctored (by being kept on a separate “secret” waiting list, before being moved onto the real, computerized waiting list within 14 days of their scheduled appointment). The scandal, which is believed to have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans while they waited for appointments, led to much consternation and a call for significant reform to improve the waiting time of veterans.

It was found that veterans were waiting too long for appointments not only in Phoenix (where the “secret waiting list” scandal was discovered) but at many VA sites around the country. This was determined to have significant (though not always easily quantifiable) impact on patient safety as well as patient services to the large numbers of veterans who were unable to get timely appointments. (Read our previous blog about a veteran who lost much of his nose after waiting more than 2 years for a biopsy.)

In order to lessen the waiting times, $16.3 billion in spending to hire more doctors, open more clinics, and create a program that allows veterans to seek private-sector care was approved July 31, 2014. However, a study by the Associated Press has found that from August 1, 2014 to February 28, 2015, over 890,000 appointments failed to meet the timeliness goal. More than 230,000 appointments were delayed more than 60 days. While the number of vets waiting more than 30 and more than 60 days has stayed about flat, the number of appointments that take more than 90 days has nearly doubled. Some specific problem areas have been identified.

Challenges remain with the “Choice Program”: The Choice Program began to cover non-VA care for eligible veterans November 5, 2014. However, eligibility remains limited to those who have to wait more than 30 days from their “preferred date” or a date medically determined by their doctor or those who are more than 40 miles (straight line) from the nearest VA facility or face an unusual travel burden to access it.   Only some private physicians participate. The program is being expanded so that the 40 miles is based on driving distance rather than a straight line calculation, and telephone lines and other programs are being implemented to assist veterans using the program to seek care.

Medically underserved areas have the worst delays: During the government’s investigation, it was found that many VA facilities have inadequate providers for the number of veterans in their care. These areas tend to be areas that are medically underserved, which compounds the problem because civilian options in the area are also limited, limiting the effectiveness of the program that allows veterans to seek private-sector care. Says Dr. Kevin Dellsperger, chief medical officer at Georgia Regents Medical Center and former chief of staff at the VA medical center in Iowa City, Iowa, “Not a lot of medical students want to go work for the VA in a rural community medical clinic.” While 8,000 employees were added to the VA between April and December 2014, it’s hoped that increasing salaries in the underserved areas will attract more providers.

Physical space is also an issue: Any government contracting and building process can be cumbersome, and the VA has been identified as having particular difficulty managing the contracting process. When buildings are (finally) constructed, they’re usually already too small.

Enrollment is increasing: Enrollment in VA programs has been expanding rapidly. From 2002 to 2013, enrollment increased from 6.8 million to 8.9 million and spending increased from $19.9B to $44.8B.   Says Robert McDonald, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, “Today, we serve a population that is older, with more chronic conditions, and less able to afford private sector care.” It’s hoped that the increased enrollment is actually a positive, buoyed by the efforts made to increase access and shorten waiting times. “I think what we are seeing is that as we improve access, more veterans are coming, ” says Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

It may get worse: “The cost of fulfilling those obligations to our veterans grows and we expect it will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. We know that services and benefits for veterans do not peak until roughly four decades after conflict ends . . . we project the benefits for recent veterans in recent conflicts will peak around 2055,” testified VA Secretary McDonald.

The VA administration is asking for patience. Deputy Secretary Gibson says “We are doing a whole series of things – the right things, I believe – to deal with the immediate issue. But we need an intermediate term plan that moves us ahead a quantum leap, so that we don’t continue over the next three or four years just trying to stay up. We’ve got to get ahead of demand.”

To view an overview of these issues in a visual cause-and-effect diagram (or Cause Map), as well as some of the associated solutions, click on “Download PDF” above. To read more about the AP’s analysis, click here.

Prisoner escapes from hospital

By ThinkReliability Staff

A recent prisoner escape from city custody in Virginia was only one of four attempted escapes in the US over 8 days related to seeking medical care.  Examining the cause-and-effect relationships shows what led to the prisoner escape and can provide insight into improvements to reduce the risk of it happening again.  These cause-and-effect relationships can be diagrammed visually in a root cause analysis, or Cause Map.

The analysis begins by capturing the what, when and where of the problem.  In this case, the issue being analyzed is the escape of a prisoner from a public hospital in Alexandria, Virginia March 31, 2015 at about 3:00 a.m.  Along with the where, we capture what was happening at the time.  In this case, the patient was receiving medical care after a suicide attempt.  It’s also helpful to capture any differences.  Differences could be in the location, date, time or task being performed.  In this case, a few things stand out from a summary reading of the media reports available.  First, the city jail prisoner was being treated at a public hospital, and second, one of the guards responsible for the prisoner was taking a bathroom break.

These differences may or may not be causally related to the issue, but provide potential causes to consider. As mentioned, there were four prisoner escapes during a week related to medical care.  On the same day, a New Orleans prisoner escaped from a van transporting prisoners to a hospital.  The previous day, a New Jersey prisoner escaped from a hospital, and a week prior, a West Virginia psychiatric hospital patient facing murder charges escaped.

As physical and procedural security at prisons improve, fewer prisoners are escaping from the facilities themselves.  Many times, being removed for medical care is the best opportunity.  Federal prisons, which provide on-site medical care, have far fewer escapes than other facilities.  From 1999 to 2001, only one of 115,000 federal prisoners escaped.

A single trip for medical treatment itself may not be to blame for the escape attempts, but repeat trips to the same medical facility may increase the risk.  Says Kevin Tamez, inmate advocacy consultant, “Very rarely do these guys go to the hospital for treatment and all of a sudden they decide they’re going to escape.  What happens is, traditionally, inmates go to the hospital for treatment . . . they come back to the facility and they start telling other inmates . . . There is nobody more ingenious than an inmate.  They have nothing to do all day but sit around and think things up. There are ways of minimizing it, but there’s never a way to prevent it.”

Having only one guard instead of two, due to a bathroom break, is problematic for obvious reasons.  It’s far more difficult to overwhelm two guards than one.  “From a safety perspective it’s always good to have two people there,” says Gary Klugiewicz, a consultant/ trainer for law enforcement & correctional officers.  The amount of time the guards were watching this prisoner at the hospital (4 days, for reasons that are unclear) may have also played an impact.  It’s hard to keep your guard up for that amount of time.

The U.S. Marshals, who had responsibility for the prisoner at the time, will be reviewing their procedures to look for opportunities for improvement.  Experts suggest that enlisting hospital security to fill in, rather than leaving just one guard in place, may help.  Because the secure healthcare facilities in federal jails allow so many fewer escapes, using these instead of public hospitals may reduce the risk of escape.  However, there’s still the problem of transporting inmates, which is another high escape potential.

To view the Cause Map of the prisoner’s escape, click on “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to learn more.

Disabled resident dies when caregiver falls asleep

By ThinkReliability Staff

A physically disabled resident in a New York state-run care home required checks every two hours to ensure he was receiving adequate oxygen.  On the night of September 10, 2013, his nurse fell asleep, and he went more than 8 hours without the checks.  During this time, his oxygen level dropped to 40% (anything below 90% is considered dangerous), and he later died of hypoxic brain injury.

Says Patricia Gunning, prosecutor for the New York State (NYS) Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, “This case serves as a tragic reminder of the serious risk posed by an all too common workforce problem of caregiver fatigue or workers sleeping on shifts.”

Sadly, “all too common” turned out to be all too true.  The NYS Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs was formed in mid-2013, and oversees agencies responsible for more than a million people in state care or state-funded nonprofits.  During its first year, it found 458 reports alleging abuse or neglect that cited a caregiver sleeping on the job.  This included caregivers who slept through a resident’s grand-mal seizure and a resident’s elopement, residents with unattended access to medications and food, and residents who were in a car driven by a caregiver who fell asleep at the wheel.

Even with a seemingly overwhelming problem such as this, progress can be made by looking at the specifics of one case, identifying causes that led to the problem, and developing solutions.  These solutions can then be considered for individual or widespread application.  We will examine the specifics of this case in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, which lays out the cause-and-effect relationships leading to a problem.

The problem being examined is determined by the impact to an organization’s goals.  In this case, the resident safety goal was impacted because of the death of the resident.  The resident services goal was impacted because the resident did not receive adequate oxygen.  The compliance goal is impacted because of the felony charges against the nurse, who was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

Beginning with the most prominent impacted goal – in this case the resident safety goal – and asking “why” questions develop the cause-and-effect relationships that led to that impact.  In this case, the resident died from hypoxic brain injury (per diagnosis), from a lack of oxygen.  Due to the resident’s physical disability, his oxygen delivery equipment was required to be checked every 2 hours around the clock.  On the night of September 10 to September 11, more than 8 hours passed between checks, at which point the patient was found unresponsive.  (He died two weeks later.)

The resident’s oxygen delivery was not checked for more than 8 hours (as opposed to the required two) because the caregiver on duty had fallen asleep.  Testimony from the nurse in question as well as others from the facility describing sleeping on overnight shifts as a common occurrence.  Later research from the NYS Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs found that many incidents involving caregiver sleeping on duty involved staff working extended or otherwise non-traditional work shifts.  The nurse who fell asleep on duty worked 12-hour night shifts at a site where many signed up for overtime and just barely passed duty hour requirements.

In response to the numerous caregiver sleeping events it discovered, the NYS Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs has provided a toolkit aimed to protect people with special needs from caregiver fatigue.  The Center recommends that care provider agencies implement & regularly review policies meant to deter and detect sleeping on the job, establish contingency plans to relieve staff found unfit for duty, and provide assistance to residents in calling for help if caregiver is unresponsive.  Due to the myriad issues associated with caregiver fatigue, the American Nurses Association (ANA) continues to fight to reduce nurse fatigue, and possible harm to patients.

To see a one-page PDF with an overview of the investigation related to the resident lack of oxygen due to caregiver sleeping, click on “Download PDF” above.  Or, click here to learn more.

What Caused an HIV Outbreak in Rural Indiana?

By Kim Smiley

A public health emergency has been declared after 79 cases of HIV were confirmed in rural Indiana, the worst outbreak of HIV the state has ever seen.  Individuals potentially at risk have been encouraged to get tested and the number of cases is expected to rise as more cases are identified. The epidemic has been tied to intravenous drug use, although other risky behaviors may also have spread the disease.

In order to effectively fight this HIV epidemic and hopefully reduce the risk of outbreaks in the future, the factors that have led to these HIV cases needs to be understood. This region has been struggling with the use of Opana, a powerful opioid painkiller, for years.  Opana is commonly injected and health officials believe that the use of dirty needles has been the primary driver of HIV infections although unprotected sex was also a potential pathway for infection for some.  Needle exchange programs are illegal in Indiana and access to clean needles is limited so needles are being shared.  In an environment where needle sharing is common, it takes only one individual infected with HIV to rapidly spread the virus to many other drug users.

HIV is also more likely to be spread if infected individuals are unaware that they are infected and are not being treated.   Identifying an individual who has contracted HIV as early as possible and providing treatment helps prevent the disease from spreading because an HIV-positive person who receives sustained treatment is drastically less infectious, even if they continue to engage in high risk behaviors. Access to healthcare and HIV testing is limited in this region where many residents are uninsured and may lack transportation. Heroin use has long been tied to HIV, but users of Opana (a licensed pharmaceutical) may not have been fully aware of the potential risk from sharing needles.

Now that the HIV epidemic has been identified, healthcare officials are working to reduce the risk of more infections by providing testing and treatment.  One physician is even driving door to door, offering free HIV testing and trying to educate residents on drug addiction and HIV treatment.  Austin, Indiana has established its first ever HIV clinic to provide testing, counseling and treatment.  Targeted resources to help educate residents on drug use and to assist addicts seeking to get clean are also being provided.  The governor of Indiana has approved a short term needle exchange program.  Indiana has also created a public awareness campaign to help inform people about the risks of intravenous drug use.  Drug addiction is a notoriously difficult problem to battle, but the additional resources should help reduce the rate of future HIV cases.

To view a high level Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.