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GAO: Security shortfalls at VA medical centers could endanger patients, visitors

By Michael Boardman, CEO, Readiness Associates

Three years ago at a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in El Paso, Texas, a staff psychologist was shot to death by a former VA employee who then killed himself.


In a statement after the incident, David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said: “Our VA medical centers are where veterans and their families come to heal and feel safe. Incidents such as this violate that sense of protection.”

January GAO report found security risks at VA

In January 2018, a Government Accountability Office report on VA facility security concluded that the agency wasn’t meeting federal standards and that shortfall could endanger patients and visitors. The report was sent to Rep. David P. Roe, M.D., chairman of the Committee of Veterans’ Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a letter to Roe that accompanied the report, Lori Rectanus, director of GAO’s physical infrastructure team, stated that 170 VA facilities serve approximately nine million enrolled veterans.

VA facilities have become targets

“In recent years, however, these facilities have been the target of violence, threats, and other security-related incidents—including bomb threats and violent attacks involving weapons,” Rectanus wrote. “For example, in 2015, a psychologist was fatally shot while working at a VA medical clinic. Ensuring physical security for these medical centers can be complicated because VA has to balance safety and security with providing an open and welcoming health-care environment. Furthermore, VA serves a vulnerable population with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.”

Rectanus told Roe that GAO looked at nine VA medical centers “to include a range of patient volumes, rates of security incidents per patient, and locations, among other considerations.”

Rectanus pointed out that conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and an aging veteran population had increased demand for VA healthcare services.

“As part of providing care to millions of veterans, VA is expected to provide a safe environment not only for the veterans, but also for staff and visitors at a diverse makeup of VHA facilities,” Rectanus wrote.

GAO recommendations to VA

Along with its findings, GAO made recommendations to VA.

“GAO recommends that the Department of Veterans Affairs review and revise its risk management policies to reflect prevailing standards, and develop an oversight strategy to assess the effectiveness of risk management programs at VHA facilities,” Rectanus wrote. “VA agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified steps to implement them.”

VA faces same threats as other healthcare providers

VA is not alone in its need to prepare for disasters. In November 2017 the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services implemented the CMS Emergency Preparedness Program. The program requires that 17 types of healthcare organizations perform risk assessment and planning and develop policies and procedures, a communications plan, and a training and testing program.

Finding help

Outside emergency preparedness/response professionals stand ready to help VA facilities make their facilities more secure, recognizing that our nation’s veterans deserve nothing less than their best efforts.

Mike Boardmanhealthcare, CMS, risk