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GAO Report Shows Lack of Reliable Data Across VA Facilities

October 27, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
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A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that certain Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) data, particularly the number of patients VA providers and support staff are assigned to, has proved unreliable across VA's 150 medical facilities.

For the report, GAO was asked to examine these data and VA's oversight of primary care. This report examines VA's panel size data across facilities and how VA uses these data to oversee primary care, as well as VA's encounter and expenditure data across facilities, and how VA uses these data to oversee primary care. GAO analyzed fiscal year 2014 data on primary care panel size, encounters, and expenditures for all VA facilities.

Specifically, as part of its review, GAO found missing values and other inaccuracies in VA's data. Officials from VA's Primary Care Operations Office confirmed that facilities sometimes record and self-report these data inaccurately or in a manner that does not follow VA's policy and noted that this could result in the data reliability concerns GAO identified.

GAO obtained updated data from six of seven selected facilities, corrected these data for inaccuracies, and then calculated the actual panel sizes for the six facilities. GAO found that for these six facilities, the actual panel size varied from 23 percent below to 11 percent above the modeled panel size, which is the number of patients for whom a provider and support staff can reasonably deliver primary care as projected by VA. Such wide variation raises questions about whether veterans are receiving access to timely care and the appropriateness of the size of provider workload at these facilities, the report found.

GAO also found that while VA's primary care panel management policy requires facilities to ensure the reliability of their panel size data, it does not assign responsibility to VA Central Office or networks for verifying the reliability of facilities' data or require them to use the data for monitoring purposes. Federal internal control standards call for agencies to clearly define key areas of authority and responsibility, ensure that reliable information is available, and use this information to assess the quality of performance over time. Because VA's panel management policy is inconsistent with federal internal control standards, VA lacks assurance that its facilities' data are reliable and that the facilities are managing primary care panels in a manner that meets VA's goals of providing efficient, timely, and quality care to veterans, GAO concluded.

GAO did find that in contrast to VA's panel data, primary care encounter and expenditure data reported by all VA medical facilities are reliable, although the data show wide variations across facilities. For example, in fiscal year 2014, expenditures per primary care encounter—that is, a professional contact between a patient and a primary care provider—ranged from a low of $150 to a high of $396 after adjusting to account for geographic differences in labor costs across facilities. Such wide variations may indicate that services are being delivered inefficiently at some facilities with relatively higher per encounter costs compared to other facilities, the report found.

As such, GAO recommends that VA verify facilities' panel size data, monitor and address panel sizes that are too high or too low, and review and document how to use encounter and expenditure data to help monitor facilities' management of primary care. VA agreed with GAO's recommendations and described its plans to implement them.


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