By CURT WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer, AP, June 15, 2007
OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Department of Veterans Affairs knew for months that shower heads, handrails and other fixtures posed serious suicide risks to Seattle-area psychiatric patients, but refused to fix the problems, inspectors said in a report released Friday.
The VA said it scrambled to remedy problems in Seattle after a medical standards group threatened to pull its endorsement of two area hospitals last month. Health care for the nation's veterans has been rocked in recent months by accounts of shoddy treatment at the Department of Defense's Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was unsatisfied with the agency's response and personally inspected the Seattle VA hospital's progress on Friday.
"We are all clearly very, very concerned about the report that has come out," Murray told the administrators when she arrived at the hospital. "It set alarm bells off for all of us."
The Chicago-based Joint Commission, a nonprofit hospital standards group, said psychiatric ward conditions posed an "immediate threat to life" after it inspected the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in May.
VA officials initially refused to release details of the inspection, which was first reported by The News Tribune of Tacoma. Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, released it Friday after obtaining a copy.
The document said VA officials knew in February that suicidal patients could use several room fixtures to hang themselves, but "rejected that these were viable risks and elected not to correct." An internal report was issued that month after a patient at the Seattle VA hospital committed suicide in November.
The directors of the psychiatric wards at the hospital said they have been trying to weigh the threat posed by objects such as support bars on hospital bed against the fact that the fixtures are needed by patients.
After two hours touring the two psychiatric wards, Murray said the hospital is making progress on the issues identified in the commission's report.
Similar conditions were seen in a Tacoma psychiatric ward, but nothing was done — even though one patient tried to commit suicide in January, the report said.
Inspectors also said the procedure for determining psychiatric patients' safety was not up to par.
The Puget Sound VA started correcting the problems immediately in mid-May, when Joint Commission inspectors were visiting the hospitals, VA spokeswoman Jeri Rowe said.
"We started making changes within the first 24 hours they were here," she said of the four-day inspection.
Disclosures in February that war veterans were not getting adequate care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center stunned the public, outraged Capitol Hill and forced three high-level Pentagon officials to step down.
A group of senators moved Wednesday to boost disability pay to those hurt in combat and improve care for brain injury in response to shabby treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.
On Thursday, officials told The Associated Press that the Army is planning to hire at least 25 percent more psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to help a growing number of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs.
Walter Reed's new commanding officer said the Army medical system has lost the trust of soldiers, their relatives and the American people but is working hard to fix its problems and provide quality care to troops.
"We are working very hard to restore confidence and trust. We are very serious about this," Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker told the AP during an interview Friday in Jacksonville, Fla., where he planned to speak at the Florida Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention.
Associated Press writer Ron Word, in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.