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Report startles veterans clinic

The award-winning center gave the VA a self-assessment, and found itself held up as an example of problems.

March 28, 2007|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

As the director of the veterans' facility explains it, he was simply complying with a request from national headquarters for a "comprehensive self-report" on any maintenance problems at the World War II-era complex near Medford, Ore.

There was a periodic problem with bats and the occasional leaky roof, the assessment noted. But overall the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics was in good shape and had even been highlighted last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs with a national award for excellence in patient care.

So it was with some surprise that staff at the Oregon facility found that it was singled out as an example of poor conditions nationwide at VA hospitals and clinics.

"The secretary wanted a comprehensive inventory to know if there were any substantial problems," Max McIntosh, director of the facility, told the Medford Mail Tribune. "He asked all the VA facilities to do that and be forthcoming. We did that. They read our report. We really don't have any significant problems."

The nationwide review of the agency's 1,400 health clinics and hospitals was ordered three weeks ago by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson. Among findings of serious problems were roof leaks or mold at facilities in Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Indianapolis; Fayetteville, Ark.; and in New York's Hudson Valley.

The survey was ordered in the wake of the Washington Post's disclosure of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The military hospital is operated by the Defense Department in Washington, D.C.

The facility near Medford, Ore., serves roughly 470 inpatients and 13,000 outpatients, mostly from southern Oregon and Northern California. It has about 575 employees.

Of 1,100 problems detailed in its 69-page report, 90% were considered routine, including worn-out carpet, peeling paint and the presence of dead bugs.

The other 10%, including eight situations that the report said required immediate attention, were considered serious and included mold spreading in patient-care areas, according to the review.

The VA report did not list as urgent the problem of large colonies of bats at the rehabilitation center and clinic. The bats live outside the building but sometimes fly into the attics and other parts of the complex.

"Eradication has been discussed but the uniqueness of the situation [the number of colonies] makes it challenging to accomplish," the report stated, adding that none of the bats tested showed evidence of disease. "Also, the bats keep the insect pollution to a minimum, which is beneficial," the report said.

In November, the Veterans Affairs Department gave its 2006 Robert W. Carey Performance Excellence Award for long-term healthcare to the center. Nicholson presented the award to the staff at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. -- the second time the facility has received the award since 1994.

Too upfront?

As details of the report listing the maintenance issues became known last week, McIntosh found himself flooded with inquiries about the bats, which he noted were not an uncommon problem in rural areas.

He told the local newspaper that he wondered if the facility was being highlighted simply because it had been so upfront about the problem.

"We have a highly safe environment for our veterans," McIntosh told the Mail Tribune, noting that the report was based on an internal self-assessment and not any outside investigation. "We have a very competent staff, and we pay a lot of attention to detail."

McIntosh did not respond to a telephone message Tuesday, and a secretary said he was no longer fielding calls about the matter. She referred a reporter to a regional VA spokeswoman in Vancouver, Wash., who did not return a phone message.

In Washington, D.C., VA officials said the report did not indicate a pattern of problems as severe as those found at the outpatient facilities for Walter Reed.

But some Democrats said it provided more evidence of an outdated and inadequate system for veterans, especially wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Conditions like this at our VA facilities are absolutely unconscionable," Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

"Who's been minding the store? The VA is in this situation because they have failed to be honest about their real needs and our veterans are paying the price."

*

sam.howe.verhovek@latimes.com

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