Wednesday, June 4, 2008

El Paso VA health chief retires after patients criticize care

El Paso VA health chief retires after patients criticize care (7:02 a.m.)
By Chris Roberts / For the Sun-News
Article Launched: 06/04/2008 07:05:24 AM MDT

EL PASO — The embattled director of the El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System has stepped down, officials said Tuesday.

Director Bruce E. Stewart has decided to retire after 34 years of service to the VA, spokesman Ray Horn said.

Stewart's decision to retire comes soon after the El Paso system was ranked last in the nation in an internal survey on patient satisfaction completed last fall. No policy or additional staff changes are planned at this time, Horn said. "We will continue to improve access and to provide the highest quality of care," he said.

In April, the El Paso Times reported in a copyright story that the local VA system had fared poorly in the survey in patient care, outreach, technology and distribution of medical equipment and supplies. It also reportedly was having problems with staff morale, which apparently resulted in threats of "mass resignations."

At the time, Stewart said the El Paso VA was not providing the level of customer service it should, but that, in some cases, the way local administrators answered survey questions gave the wrong impression. Stewart's defenders said he inherited some of the problems, and Stewart noted that a recent infusion of money was allowing him to hire



staff, which was expected to improve the system's responsiveness.
U.S. Reps. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, visited the facility in April. Filner said the El Paso VA system was failing local veterans and threatened to conduct a congressional hearing if things didn't improve soon.

Reyes said that a 1.9 percent decline in visits from 2006 to 2007 indicated that some veterans were giving up. However, during a visit to the facility late last month, VA Secretary James Peake said there already were improvements after the hiring of 40 new staff members.

"The departure of Director Stewart is not a surprising development for El Paso area veterans, who have for too long endured lengthy wait times for appointments and are often unable to contact VA staff over the phone," Reyes said Tuesday. "When I met with Secretary Peake and Senator (Kay Bailey) Hutchison (R-Texas) last month in El Paso to discuss these problems, we made clear that the level of access to medical services provided by the VA clinic was unacceptable."

Reyes said he was "encouraged" by recent actions taken but "will continue to press for improvements."

"When I needed to talk to him (Stewart), he was there," retired Lt. Col. John McKinney, an El Paso veterans advocate.

"He's had his hands full," McKinney said. "He came in from a much smaller facility and there's been growth since he's been here. ... They've had problems; whether or not they've been attributed to him depends on who you ask."

An interim director will be appointed by the director of the VA network, which includes El Paso, Horn said, and the new director ultimately must be approved by the Cabinet secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Chris Roberts reports for the El Paso Times, a member of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership, and may be reached at;546-6136.

El Paso VA health chief retires after patients criticize care

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