Watchdog Report: Diversion Problems at Marion VA

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By Stephanie Tyrpak
By Benjy Jeffords

WSIL -- Problems with VA healthcare are getting a lot of attention right now. The nation has learned veterans are waiting months for care or never even getting appointments. A local ambulance provider is now raising another issue.

When a hospital goes on diversion or bypass, it means they have a situation where they can't quickly treat emergency patients. For most hospitals in southern Illinois, it's a rare occurrence. It happens at the Marion VA far more often. 
 
When Perry County patients call for help, the Pinckneyville Ambulance Service is there.
 
"As long as they are conscious, alert, oriented, able to make an informed decision, we do what we can to get them where they want to go," said Director Shane Malawy. 
     
However, Malawy ran into a new complication this year. Veterans asked to be taken to the Marion VA Medical Center..
 
"At which time the Marion VA said we're on diversion," said Malawy. "We can't accept your patient."
 
That forces the ambulance to pull over and decide on a different hospital. One veteran refused to be treated anywhere else.
 
"If we try to force them to go somewhere they don't want to go, that's considered kidnapping," said Malawy. "We're not in that business."
 
After talking to their supervising hospital, the ambulance drove on to the VA. The crew the did something Malawy hasn't experienced in 24 years. He says the VA told them to leave the man sitting in the ER.
 
"Take him off your stretcher, set him in the waiting room, take out your IV, take him off the oxygen, take him off the monitor and get out," said Malawy. 
 
He's concerned the VA is turning away patients too often.
 
"We're stuck in the middle," said Malawy. 
 
The state tracks and has to approve diversions at all Illinois hospitals. Since January of 2013, only a handful of local hospitals had any. Heartland Regional Medical Center in Marion was the highest and was on diversion about 3% of the time.
 
 
The Marion VA does not fall under state rules. Records from the VA show during a nine month period in 2013, they were on diversion 34% of the time.
 
The VA says the main cause is staffing. They're making progress on recruiting, but still looking to hire three more ER and hospital doctors.
 
As lawmakers focus on fixing veterans healthcare, Malawy believes this problem deserves a closer look. He's reached out to congressman Bill Enyart's office about the diversion problems.
 
"It's unacceptable for us to have to sit alongside the road for 15 minutes trying to sort out these issues," said Malawy. 
 
The Marion VA declined an interview with us on this story. However, Medical Center Director Donald Hutson released this statement:
 
"The Marion VA Medical Center is committed to honoring America's Veterans through the delivery of world class medical care. In those cases where a Veteran's needs exceed our capacity, we facilitate those Veterans getting the care they need from a hospital that can provide the care in the needed time frame.  We are proud of the collaborative relationships we maintain with area hospitals in support of Veterans."
 
If you an Watchdog Report issue you'd like News 3 to investigate, you can email Stephanie at styrpak@wsiltv.com
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