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Sterling, responding through a Dayton, Ohio, law firm, said the e-mail shows employees were only being asked to correct appointments scheduled incorrectly to begin with, not to falsify records, and said it conducted two days of training for schedulers when they transitioned from the old contractor.
“If there are truly scheduling errors, then they should be fixed,” the statement said. “The (manager) specifically instructs staff not to lie and if some appointments need to stay as is, they should do so.”
Dr. Bruce Garbisch worked in the Hibbing and Cook VA clinics with Health Net for almost a decade, but quit during the transition to Sterling. He said he became concerned when Sterling began plans to move its satellite clinic in Cook to Ely, saying it could serve more vets. Garbisch said he protested to officials in Minneapolis, challenging Sterling’s figures justifying the move, and said that veterans in the Cook area would be inconvenienced.
Sterling and the Minneapolis VA seemed set on the move, Garbisch said, to the point where he sensed “inside politics and some unfair favoritism.”
Sterling offered Garbisch a position but he declined, and now works in private practice at the Scenic Rivers Health Services in Cook, where he said he sees a number of his patients from the VA clinics. He saw Sterling’s approach as unprofessional and penny-pinching. “I said, ‘I am not going to have any part of it,’ ” Garbisch said.
Asked about Garbisch’s charges, the VA said data showed that at the time of the new contract 429 veterans lived in Ely and 222 vets lived in Cook.
“The former provider in question also works at the Cook Hospital [location of prior Cook VA Outreach clinic] and advised that he did not want to travel from Cook to the new outreach clinic [in] Ely,” the VA said in a statement.
In response to written questions from the Star Tribune, a Minneapolis VA spokesman said the VA does not have concerns about how appointments are scheduled at the Hibbing and Ely clinics. The clinics in Hibbing and Ely were not flagged for additional review of scheduling issues in a nationwide audit released last week, though a community clinic in Rochester was. The VA said it communicates at least weekly with Sterling about access for patients.
Same-day appointments with a desired provider have increased under Sterling from 36 percent to 56 percent, the VA said. Since Sterling took over, it has added more than 200 new patients.
“The Minneapolis VA has a strong partnership and close working relationship with Sterling,” the VA said in a statement. “The Minneapolis VA and the community clinics, operated by the Minnesota VA and its contractors, follow national performance guidelines.”
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434