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After Mistreatment of Veteran at Seattle VA, Newhouse Leads Letter Urging Action to Ensure that Every Veteran Receives the Highest Level of Emergency Care

June 18, 2015
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA) led a bipartisan letter, signed by 34 House Members, to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald regarding recent incidents of mismanagement and the subsequent mistreatment of veterans, including the case of 64-year-old Army veteran Donald Siefken, who was recently refused assistance from his car to the emergency room at a Seattle Veterans Administration hospital. 

The Members wrote in the letter:

“We write to you regarding the reports of mismanagement in emergency rooms at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.  The most recent incident is the alarming and unacceptable treatment that Donald Siefken received at the Seattle VA hospital emergency room.  Mr. Siefken, a 64-year-old Army veteran from Kennewick, WA, arrived at the Seattle VA hospital emergency room in severe pain and with a broken foot that was swollen to the size of a football.  He was unable to walk and requested assistance entering the emergency room.  What he received was an instruction to call 911 and a warning that he would have to pay for the cost of any emergency services, followed by a dial tone – the VA hospital employee had hung up on him.  Mr. Siefken was a mere ten feet from the entrance of the emergency room. Frustrated to the point that he was in tears, the 64-year-old Army veteran called 911.  Seven minutes later a Seattle fire captain and three firefighters arrived to help Mr. Siefken into the emergency room to be treated.

“The Puget Sound VA Health Care System’s initial position regarding the circumstances surrounding Mr. Siefken’s situation was that the hospital staff acted appropriately and in accordance with hospital policy in denying assistance to Mr. Siefken.  They have since altered their position, indicating that the hospital staff did not behave appropriately when they failed to ensure the Mr. Siefken was assisted into the emergency room.  The hospital has indicated, in a written statement, that they plan to take corrective action to ensure that a similar incident does not occur.  However, this is indicative of a larger problem, which cannot simply be addressed at the individual VA hospital level but will require the attention of the full VA.

The Members continue in the letter:

“While VA hospital facilities are not statutorily bound under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals to conduct a medical examination on any patient presenting in the emergency department in order to determine if an emergency situation exists, and if so, to stabilize the patient prior to transfer, the VA voluntarily complies with EMTALA’s policies.  It is imperative that VA hospital emergency rooms and their staff follow the VA’s stated policy for compliance with the EMTALA requirements to provide for the health, welfare, and emotional well-being of our nation’s veterans.  We urge you to ensure that all VA facilities are treating veterans in accordance with the EMTALA guidelines.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D), Paul Gosar, Bob Goodlatte, Chris Gibson, Walter Jones, Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D), Dave Brat, Curt Clawson, Tom McClintock, Frank Guinta, Denny Heck (D), Trent Franks, Austin Scott, Tom Marino, Rob Bishop, Doug LaMalfa, Brian Babin, Cresent Hardy, Rick Allen, Bill Flores, Derek Kilmer (D), Rick Larsen (D), David G. Valadao, David Reichert, Adam Smith (D), Jim McDermott (D), Charles Boustany, Jr., MD, Jamie Herrera Beutler, Suzan DelBene (D), David Rouzer, Jeb Hensarling, Cathy McMorris Rodgers , and John Fleming, MD.

The full text of the letter is included below.

 

June 18, 2015

 

The Honorable Robert A. McDonald

Secretary

United States Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20420

 

Dear Secretary McDonald:

We write to you regarding the reports of mismanagement in emergency rooms at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.  The most recent incident is the alarming and unacceptable treatment that Donald Siefken received at the Seattle VA hospital emergency room.  Mr. Siefken, a 64-year-old Army veteran from Kennewick, WA, arrived at the Seattle VA hospital emergency room in severe pain and with a broken foot that was swollen to the size of a football.  He was unable to walk and requested assistance entering the emergency room.  What he received was an instruction to call 911 and a warning that he would have to pay for the cost of any emergency services, followed by a dial tone – the VA hospital employee had hung up on him.  Mr. Siefken was a mere ten feet from the entrance of the emergency room. Frustrated to the point that he was in tears, the 64-year-old Army veteran called 911.  Seven minutes later a Seattle fire captain and three firefighters arrived to help Mr. Siefken into the emergency room to be treated.

The Puget Sound VA Health Care System’s initial position regarding the circumstances surrounding Mr. Siefken’s situation was that the hospital staff acted appropriately and in accordance with hospital policy in denying assistance to Mr. Siefken.  They have since altered their position, indicating that the hospital staff did not behave appropriately when they failed to ensure the Mr. Siefken was assisted into the emergency room.  The hospital has indicated, in a written statement, that they plan to take corrective action to ensure that a similar incident does not occur.  However, this is indicative of a larger problem, which cannot simply be addressed at the individual VA hospital level but will require the attention of the full VA.

Sadly, this is not the first, or the most horrifying incident that has occurred when a veteran could not get access to a VA emergency room.  Last year at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in New Mexico, veteran Jim Garcia died when he collapsed in the Center’s cafeteria.  Instead of transporting him the 500 yards to the Center’s emergency room, the fire department was called to transport Mr. Garcia.  Sadly, Mr. Garcia died prior to being transferred. 

Put simply, these stories are horrifying and no veteran seeking emergency medical care should ever experience such treatment. While VA hospital facilities are not statutorily bound under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals to conduct a medical examination on any patient presenting in the emergency department in order to determine if an emergency situation exists, and if so, to stabilize the patient prior to transfer, the VA voluntarily complies with EMTALA’s policies.  It is imperative that VA hospital emergency rooms and their staff follow the VA’s stated policy for compliance with the EMTALA requirements to provide for the health, welfare, and emotional well-being of our nation’s veterans.  We urge you to ensure that all VA facilities are treating veterans in accordance with the EMTALA guidelines. 

It is of critical importance that our nation’s veterans have access to, not only first-class quality emergency care, but also to customer service that demonstrates the utmost respect for the dedication and sacrifice made by our servicemen and women.  We request that you take immediate action to ensure that every veteran is afforded the highest level of emergency care at every emergency-capable medical facility under your jurisdiction and that they are treated with the utmost level of care and respect when doing so.