VA hospital in Decatur gets bottom score again

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is ditching its current grading system, which assigned the hospital in Decatur one out of five stars earlier this week.

It's the second year in a row that the hospital has received the dismal score.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a news release that the star system is of little use to veterans trying to decide where to get care. It measures how one VA facility compares to another, but it does not evaluate how VA hospitals stack up against non-VA facilities.

The VA has developed an online tool that lets veterans compare VA and civilian hospitals on seven measurements, such as urinary infections from catheters or overall quality. That can be found on each VA hospital homepage.

The news of the suspension of the star system irked some in Georgia.

“They are going to change the scoring system to protect the guilty,” said Jim Lindenmayer of Cherokee County. He is a West Point graduate and businessman who helps veterans seeking care break through bureaucratic logjams.

The VA hospital in Decatur is the the largest in the three-state region that includes Alabama and South Carolina. Its score of one star out of five puts it among the worst in the nation.

The Decatur complex has a history of problems in a region that registered the lowest satisfaction scores of the country’s 18 regions. It received national notoriety this summer when a dying veteran was found covered in ant bites.

Three of the eight hospitals in the region rank in the bottom four in the nation in employee satisfaction.

The Augusta hospital moved up from one star to two in the 2019 scores. The Dublin hospital moved from two stars to three.

In an emailed response to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a spokesman for the Decatur complex said it is under new leadership — a new director was appointed last spring — and is taking steps to rebuild trust, improve care and provide better service. He said the hospital is expediting hiring for high priority positions in the operating and emergency departments, expanding its telehealth programs and implementing plans to increase reliability of service.

The star system was a simple but useful in providing a general sense of how well or poorly a hospital was functioning, said John Shiver, who has worked for the VA and teaches health administration and policy at George Mason University. It is based on 60 detailed measurements in hospitals of everything from death rates to customer satisfaction, he said.

Though it dropped the stars, the VA will continue to take the 60 measurements, the news release said. Those results are available online, but the analysis is complex, based on mathematical formulas.

Shiver said those are too complex for people to review when considering where to get a checkup or an operation.

Civilian hospitals are also measured, but in a much less complex and less expensive way, Shiver said.

Lindenmayer said he hopes the VA will join that system, known as the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and System, or HCAHPS.

“We want transparency, and we want to benchmark against other hospitals, because the VA isn’t doing anything different than any other hospital,” he said.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he is reserving judgment on getting rid of the star system.

“The rating system wasn’t perfect … but we do need a way to hold the medical centers accountable,” he said.