WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs over the summer quietly stopped sharing data on the quality of care at its facilities with a national database for consumers, despite a 2014 law requiring the agency to report more comprehensive statistics to the site so veterans can make informed decisions about where to seek care.
For years, the VA provided data on a number of criteria to the Hospital Compare web site run by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in the Department of Health and Human Services. The site includes death and readmission rates and other measures of quality for public and private hospitals around the country, as well as national averages.
After the VA scandal, Congress passed the law mandating the VA to submit even more data. But the VA confirmed to USA TODAY last week that it stopped reporting its information July 1.
Joe Francis, director of clinical analytics and reporting at the Veterans Health Administration, said lawyers at HHS advised the VA to pull the plug until the two agencies could work out a new deal governing the sharing of information.
“It’s deeply frustrating to us, and it’s our commitment to get back online as soon as we can,” he said.
HHS declined to provide answers to a list of questions from USA TODAY but issued a statement from CMS spokesman Aaron Albright saying the agency is committed to providing additional health care information to consumers.
"We are working closely with the VA to finalize an inter-agency agreement and expect to sign the final agreement very shortly," Albright said.
In a separate move, the VA also took down its own site in February that provided side-by-side quality comparisons of its hospitals. That page, hospitalcompare.va.gov, is now simply blank.
Francis said the VA took it down because it didn’t meet accessibility requirements — using colors, for example, such as red, green and yellow to indicate how well a VA medical center was performing was not accessible to visually impaired people.
There are still VA web pages where users can download 140 different spreadsheets of health statistics or see ratings for VA facilities in a zip code or region, but neither shows comparisons to the private sector.
“I’m not defending what we have currently in terms of our reporting site. It is not a user-friendly interface by any means, but that site at least met the (accessibility) requirements,” Francis said.
He said the VA is looking for a contractor to improve the site, and he hopes that will happen in the next few weeks. There is no set timeline for VA to resume reporting to the HHS Hospital Compare database.
The VA is the country’s largest health care system serving roughly 9 million veterans at more than 1,200 facilities across the country, including 168 medical centers. It began releasing comprehensive facility-level quality and patient satisfaction data in 2008, and a few years later, began sharing its information with Hospital Compare.
"VA is committed to providing veterans and their family members with a transparent accounting of the quality and safety of its health care system," then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki said when announcing the new data sharing in August 2011. "In collaborating with CMS, we show our determination to be open and accountable to veterans and their families."
That allowed veterans for the first time to use data from the site to compare care at their local VA with public hospitals in the area before making decisions about where to get treatment.
In 2014, after the wait-time scandal broke at the Phoenix VA, where 40 veterans died awaiting care, Congress passed the Choice Act, which included expanded authority for the VA to pay for veterans’ care in the private sector if they couldn’t get timely appointments at a nearby VA facility.
That law also included a provision requiring the VA and HHS within six months to reach an agreement to expand the amount of data the VA reported and HHS published on Hospital Compare.
That deadline came and went in February 2015.