Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the legislation.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the legislation. Susan Walsh/AP

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Senate Passes Bill to Ban VA From Signing Settlements With Doctors Fired for Medical Mistakes

A 2017 audit found VA was routinely burying mistakes made by its medical providers.

The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a measure that would make it harder for Veterans Affairs Department doctors disciplined for medical mistakes to get new jobs, with lawmakers in both parties saying it would bring more accountability to VA and prevent veterans from receiving poor care. 

The VA Provider Accountability Act (S. 221) would prohibit the department from agreeing to settlements with fired employees that would “conceal a serious medical error or a lapse in generally-accepted standards of clinical practice.” It would also require VA to report such adverse personnel actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank and state licensing boards. 

The bill follows a 2017 Government Accountability Office report that found VA medical center officials were regularly failing to investigate complaints lodged against providers, or in some cases waiting months to do so. When the department revoked doctors’ privileges at VA medical facilities, officials failed to inform state licensing boards and rarely informed the national data bank. VA also sometimes reached settlement agreements with doctors to allow them to resign in exchange for the department withholding their mistakes from state and federal officials. 

GAO said those failures could hurt veterans and patients at non-VA facilities, citing as an example one case in which a doctor resigned from VA to avoid an “adverse privileging action”—the suspension, revocation or denial of clinical privileges—and subsequently was hired by a private hospital in the same city. Two years later, that physician received an adverse privileging action at the new hospital for the same reason the individual was forced to leave VA.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing on the findings, during which department officials pledged to take corrective action—including by reporting all existing adverse actions at the state and national levels. The department also said it would clarify settlement agreements that bury doctors’ mistakes were illegal. Still, lawmakers said their bill was necessary to ensure statutory change. 

“VA has made attempts to correct this on their own, but I believe strict guidelines must be implemented to assure our veterans they are receiving the highest quality of care,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who co-sponsored the bill, said in February when unveiling it. 

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who introduced the legislation, said it was targeting only the small percentage of VA doctors who act inappropriately or perform poorly. 

“The vast majority of VA employees and medical providers provide exceptional care to our veterans and we are grateful for their service,” Gardner said. “However, there is no excuse for allowing certain medical providers with a history of committing major medical errors to continue putting other patients at risk. We owe every single veteran the best possible care, and we can only provide that care with increased accountability.”