Government

Ernst, Grassley question Iowa City VA about canceled exams

'Similar issues over the past few years continue to raise questions regarding the level of care'

Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley sent a letter Tuesday to the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System with questions about allegations of improperly canceled diagnostic exams.

“Iowa veterans rightly expect the VA to properly manage crucial medical appointments, especially with follow-ups, lab or imaging tests,” Ernst said in a prepared statement. “I remain concerned about the level of care that our veterans are receiving.”

The letter follows news reports about the Iowa City VA being audited, along with eight other VA hospitals nationwide, to determine whether radiology requests were processed in a timely manner and canceled appropriately.

Jeff Dettbarn, a former X-ray technician at the Iowa City hospital, told The Gazette earlier this week thousands of exams were canceled, many without the required physician signoff. After repeatedly expressing concern about the cancellations, Dettbarn was transferred to a lower-paying job at the VA, he said.

In Tuesday’s letter to Judith Johnson-Mekota, director of the Iowa City VA, Ernst and Grassley asked for responses by Oct. 16 to the following questions:

• How many total cancellations occurred?

• How many of these cancellations were determined to have been made in error?

• How did the Iowa City VA determine that a radiology appointment was improperly canceled?

The U.S. senators also asked hospital staff to detail the process the VA used to follow up with veterans to make sure they are receiving proper imaging care.

“While we are glad to see corrective action by the Iowa City VA, this and similar issues over the past few years continue to raise questions regarding the level of care our veterans in Iowa are receiving,” the letter states.

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The Tampa Bay Times reported in July the VA had directed hospitals in January 2017 to reduce a backlog of more than 300,000 radiology exams ordered but not performed within two months. VA officials said many of the overdue tests weren’t necessary any longer.

But doctors were supposed to sign off on the cancellations to make sure the exams — including CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds and mammographies, weren’t needed — the Times reported.

Four radiology techs at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa alleged officials canceled orders without a doctor’s permission and then tried to cover it up. The technicians also are involved in a sexual harassment and intimidation lawsuit against the hospital, the Times reported.

Iowa City VA spokesman Bryan Clark told The Gazette on Monday most canceled orders were “obsolete, outdated and/or duplicates” but noted some exams were canceled without following proper policies or procedures.

He acknowledged one incident in which a patient showed up for an appointment that had been canceled, but said the “staff reacted quickly to ensure the patient got the care they needed immediately.”

Clark said he could not comment on Dettbarn’s specific allegations about retaliation by VA staff, but said the “VA does not tolerate retaliation.”

Grassley’s staff exchanged several emails with Dettbarn in September and October 2017, providing information on who he needed to contact regarding his claims against the VA, Grassley spokesman Michael Zona said Wednesday. The Gazette attempted to contact Grassley’s staff Monday and Tuesday for a previous story about the VA but had outdated email addresses that did not bounce back or reach the appropriate contact.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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