- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The Providence VA Medical Center’s mortality rate was among the highest in a recent tally of patient deaths among veterans hospitals nationwide, according to Veterans Affairs data released this week.

The figures, for January through March, were released in conjunction with the results of the VA audit conducted after reports of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.

According to the data, the Providence hospital was above the 90th percentile for the number of patients who die within 30 days of admission, meaning 90 percent of other VAs had a lower rate.

Providence VA spokeswoman Leslie Pierson said Friday the local hospital’s mortality rate was high because the hospital erroneously included hospice patients in the calculation. She said that while the mortality rate is a measure of how well a hospital is curing disease and injury, hospice patients are there to be made comfortable, not cured.

In its audit, the federal agency examined 731 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics and found more than 57,000 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA medical appointments.

While the Providence VA was not among the sites flagged for further review, it had one of the longest average wait times in the country. The audit showed new patients were waiting about 74 days on average for a primary care appointment with the Providence VA. But Pierson said Friday that 74 days was a projected wait time based on patient volume in April. She said the actual wait time was closer to 35 days.

Pierson said she expects the wait time to go down because the Providence VA system is adding primary care teams at the hospital and at its outpatient clinic in Hyannis, Massachusetts. She said she also expects the mortality rate to fall as future calculations exclude hospice patients.

Thirty-four patients at the Providence VA died in the first quarter of this year, including 20 patients who were terminally or seriously ill and needed hospice care when they were admitted. Pierson said she suspects that other hospitals had lower rates because their hospice patients were not counted.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said that while the statistics don’t reflect the actual care or condition of the patients, the Providence VA’s mortality rate deserves attention.

“I don’t think we can sort of make excuses,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.

The hospital received one star out of a possible five in the federal agency’s quality rating system: the more stars, the fewer patients who died within 30 days of being admitted for heart failure or who needed to be readmitted after they were discharged.

“We want to be five stars,” Reed said.

The Providence VA might expand its palliative care program so veterans can be treated for acute or chronic pain without being admitted to the hospital. It says it has also taken steps to reduce the number of cases of ventilator-associated pneumonia and pressure ulcers - two of the areas where rates at the Providence hospital exceeded those at most other VA facilities.

Reed said he remains concerned.

“We can’t sit back and say it’s good enough,” he said. “We have to make it the best.”

But he said he believes Providence VA staff members have rededicated themselves to providing the best possible care.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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