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Blunt: No answers yet on VA concerns in St. Louis

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 | 1:15 p.m. CDT; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ST. LOUIS — U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said Wednesday he was outraged that Veterans Affairs has been slow to respond to concerns about mental health treatment for veterans at its St. Louis hospital, but the Republican is not among those calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

Blunt spoke to the media after he met with officials at the St. Louis VA Medical Center. The meeting came about two weeks after Jose Mathews, the former St. Louis VA chief of psychiatry, claimed that veterans seeking mental health treatment often wait a month or more, in part because psychiatrists and other staff members see too few patients.

Mathews also claimed in a federal whistleblower complaint that he was demoted because of a staff "mutiny" that followed his efforts to make employees work harder and more efficiently.

Blunt and his Missouri colleague in the Senate, Democrat Claire McCaskill, sent a letter to Shinseki on May 12 seeking information on the number of mental health providers at the St. Louis VA, their workload and how timely patients are being seen. Blunt said he has received no response.

"It's outrageous that we're not getting information as quickly as we need to from the VA," Blunt said.

Federal VA officials didn't return a message to The Associated Press seeking comment Wednesday. St. Louis VA Medical Center spokeswoman Marcena Gunter has said Mathews' allegations are being investigated. She did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Shinseki has been under fire following reports from around the country about care at VA facilities, including allegations that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting medical care from the VA hospital in Phoenix. Some lawmakers have called for him to resign. Blunt is not among them.

"VA needs to respond in a better way to the needs of veterans and that can't be solved by one person deciding to leave the job," Blunt said.

Instead, Blunt believes the VA needs to work more efficiently and consider allowing veterans in some cases to obtain treatment at private-sector facilities rather than wait for care at the VA.

"They should have access to the best health care in the most convenient, possible way," Blunt said.

Mathews took over as St. Louis VA chief of psychiatry in November 2012. He said he soon learned of the limited workload of psychiatrists — typically about six patients per day, with a typical visit lasting about 30 minutes. He said they should be seeing at least twice that many.

"I could account for only a four-hour workday," Mathews told the AP in an interview earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the average wait time for those who are seeking help for mental illness is nearly 30 days, Mathews said.

Mathews said he implemented changes to provide more timely treatment, but his efforts were met with opposition by staff. He said the hospital chief of staff told him, "There was a mutiny."

Mathews remains with the St. Louis VA, but was reassigned in September to a compensation and pension evaluation team, where he continues to work.

He also cited other concerns. He said that the St. Louis VA failed to investigate two questionable deaths, and he asked whether productivity data was altered to increase appropriations.

The VA hospital in St. Louis has been under scrutiny before. In 2010, faulty sterilization at the center's dental clinic raised concerns that 1,812 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Testing eventually found no link to either disease in any of the patients.

Another cleanliness concern arose in February 2011 when the hospital shut down its operating rooms because rust stains were found on surgical equipment. Surgeries resumed several months later after the faulty equipment was cleaned or replaced. The VA revised polices and opened a new $7 million sterile processing lab in May 2012.


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