Some say service has declined under new management at Hibbing.
HIBBING, MINN. – The 6-inch scar running down the middle of Lonnie Lee’s chest is one sign that all might not be well at the Veterans Affairs clinic here.
Lee, a 65-year-old Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, wears the scar as a badge of honor. He had to wait five months for open heart surgery and said he endured a circuitous ordeal of mixed signals, runarounds and missed cues to get it.
Veterans like Lee and their advocates contend that problems began at the clinic last year, when the VA hired a new company, Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Associates, to run it. The complaints about the clinic, located in an old storefront on the outskirts of town, resemble problems evident at VA medical facilities across the country.
Internal e-mails about record keeping suggest that managers were concerned about failing to meet a 14-day appointment window and urged employees to go in and fix the desired date after the fact.
Vets in chronic pain say they have been stripped of medications after being branded drug abusers. Some say they are forced to buy drugs on the street to relieve their pain.
“They’re just trying to make a profit as a corporation and that’s understandable,” said Lee. “But it’s on the back of the veterans and it shouldn’t be done that way.”
Sterling strongly denies that it has instructed its employees to falsify records. It points out that the Hibbing clinic and its satellite in Ely recently were audited by the VA and no evidence of wrongdoing was found.
The Minneapolis VA, which operates the Hibbing clinic, said it has a strong partnership with Sterling and has no concerns about how it schedules patients. Under Sterling, the VA says, more veterans are being seen and wait times for appointments have decreased.
“There is no evidence of inappropriate scheduling practices at these clinics,” the VA said in a statement.
Hugh Quinn, a veterans advocate for Itasca County with a 29-year career in the Army, said his office has accumulated more than two dozen written complaints about the clinic since Sterling took over.
“Until this new provider took over, there were very few complaints about the service there,” Quinn wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, the congressman who represents the area, called the reports “very disturbing” and has scheduled a July forum in Hibbing to hear more.
System under fire
The VA medical system, which serves almost 9 million veterans annually, has come under fire amid claims of false record keeping and long waiting lists for care at facilities across the country. A May report from the VA’s inspector general called inappropriate scheduling “systemic.” In some places, veterans have died while waiting for care. The furor led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The scandal so far has focused on improprieties at some of the 151 large VA hospitals like those in Phoenix and Albuquerque. But the VA also operates 820 clinics like the one in Hibbing, providing outpatient and primary care to vets. The numbers of outpatient visits are skyrocketing as an aging veteran population coincides with young combat veterans suffering from multiple medical and psychological issues.
The Hibbing VA Clinic serves about 3,400 enrolled vets from four counties in northern Minnesota. California-based Health Net had operated the clinic under a contract with the VA since 2002, providing primary care, mental health care, women’s health care and preventive health services to enrolled veterans.
Sterling was awarded the Hibbing contract in March 2013. It is reimbursed $62.02 per veteran per month by the VA, with additional reimbursements for such things as mental health services.