If you can count on the Phoenix Veterans Affairs facility for anything, it’s that it will continue making headlines about mishandling veterans’ care.
This time, the VA delayed colorectal cancer screenings for hundreds of veterans.
Why? Because the VA didn’t pay its postage bills on time.
Timely, accurate testing is vital
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. It’s especially dangerous because symptoms don’t arrive until the later stages of the disease.
Screening for CRC is vital for early detections, which is why the Veterans Health Administration recommends screening for “average risk patients”, those 45 to 75 years old.
VA CRC testing includes stool samples from patients that are collected at home and mailed into laboratory facilities with a preprinted envelope, paid for by the VA facility. Tests are then performed on the sample within 15 to 30 days depending on the method of sample storage.
The time period is important because after 15 to 30 days, the integrity of the sample and tests are compromised, leading to inaccurate results. An old sample can result in a false negative, leading a veteran to believe there is no risk of CRC when that might not be the case.
The VA Office of Inspector General found several breakdowns in this Phoenix case, resulting in extensive delays in CRC screenings.
99% of samples unusable
The OIG reported 406 samples sat at a local post office for around 60 days because the Phoenix VA hadn’t paid its postage bills.
Once the problem was discovered and samples finally made it to the lab, 403 of them were too old to accurately test, and the veterans had to be notified to give new samples.
The OIG stated the unpaid postage resulted from staff turnover and a “person-dependent payment process”.
Probably one of those things you would share with incoming staff after the turnover.
OIG also found the samples hadn’t been logged properly and that laboratory staff weren’t properly trained in stability and storage requirements. That is especially concerning given the dangers of testing old samples and receiving false negatives.
The good news is, the patients were all notified to take new tests, the VA addressed the postage issues, and the OIG didn’t find any “adverse clinical outcomes” because of the delays.
But a good ending doesn’t mean the story couldn’t have gone a different way.
Over 400 cancer screening tests sat in a USPS office until past their expiration dates, because the VA failed to pay postage. 86% of the samples didn't even have collection dates listed. 🤦♂️ #VAFail@taylor_usmc72 spoke with @abc15 about the oversight👇 https://t.co/zApvz7tz9u
— Concerned Veterans for America (@ConcernedVets) November 17, 2023
The Phoenix VA’s history of scandal
The Phoenix VA is the poster child for scandal.
In 2014, a local news station exposed significant issues at the facility later discovered to be systemic throughout the VA.
Whistleblowers revealed that veterans experienced excessive wait times for medical appointments, and some had tragically died while awaiting care. Investigations found that the Phoenix VA staff had manipulated scheduling records to conceal the extensive delays, resulting in falsified reports suggesting shorter wait times.
The scandal triggered national outrage, leading to reform legislation including accountability measures and the VA MISSION Act, which expanded veterans access to community care so they wouldn’t be stuck in the VA system.
The Phoenix VA scandal underscored the dire need for systemic changes to ensure timely, quality health care for veterans and prompted ongoing efforts to overhaul the VA’s operations, enhance accountability, and restore trust in the care provided to those who served.
Sadly, nearly 10 years later, we’re still reading stories of poor care and management in Phoenix and around the country.
“Veterans aren’t getting the care that they need when they need it,” said Tim Taylor, CVA grassroots engagement director in Arizona. “Some like the VA, some get good care at the VA. And that’s great. But not everybody does, and the vast majority of the veterans I talk to are so frustrated.”
Veterans deserve better than this system that consistently mismanages their care and treatment. Accountability for wrongdoing and options to choose community care are a good start.
Read more about our ideas for reforming the VA and giving veterans more choices in their health care.