Some patients at Miami's Veterans Affairs hospital are selling drugs and physical abuse has occurred at the facility, CBS affiliate WFOR
reported this week, citing citing a longtime VA employee and investigator, adding to accounts of malfeasance at U.S. VA hospitals.
In addition, the hospital's administration is refusing interviews with a physician who claimed in an email to his superiors in February that "patients have died" because a vital piece of surgical equipment was being kept in storage in a warehouse, WFOR reported in a separate story Thursday.
"I wish I could say it was an isolated incident," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told WFOR
. "But it’s not. We are seeing this all over the country. Every time they are confronted by a problem their reaction has been to try and cover it up, to doctor information. It’s just completely unacceptable."
VA law enforcement officer Thomas Fiore told WFOR that he was reassigned to clerical duties in February after he reported incidents of drug dealing and abuse to his superiors.
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"Anything from your standard prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and of course marijuana, cocaine, heroin, I’ve come across them all," Fiore, a criminal investigator for the VA police department in South Florida, told WFOR reporter Jim DeFede. "People are dying, and there are so many things that are going on there that people need to know about."
Fiore said he was stopped from investigating reports of missing drugs from the hospital's pharmacy to determine if they were the result of mistakes or criminal activity. But two years ago, he says the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro, told him personally to quit investigating the shortages.
DeGennaro has refused requests for interviews, but a hospital spokesman said reports of drug shortages are taken seriously and investigated.
"This investigator came forward, he pointed out to the fact that these drugs were being diverted and what he was told to do was to stop reporting it and stop investigating it," Rubio said. "The reaction wasn’t, 'Let’s act on it, let’s come up with a plan to address it.' The reaction from the medical director there was, 'Stop talking about it. You no longer have the authority to look at it.'"
Fiore said he contacted the television station after its report on the death of Nicholas Cutter, 27. The Iraq War veteran, who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, died from a cocaine overdose just one week before he was to graduate from the hospital's drug rehabilitation center.
Fiore said he had filed reports on Cutter, who was well-known as someone who smuggled cocaine into the hospital, but the veteran was still given passes to leave the building.
And when Cutter's body was found last June 1, Fiore said the rehab center did not him to do an investigation on the room as a crime scene, and he only learned of the death two days later.
"Quite honestly, his death could have been prevented," Fiore said.
Drug dealing is done near the hospital's front entrance, Fiore said, where patients gather to smoke. Some patients will sell portions of their prescriptions, while others bring in illegal drugs to sell.
Fiore said he suggested bringing in undercover police officers to make arrests, since VA police are well known, but never heard back about his suggestion. He also said the VA was allocated money to install working surveillance cameras, but the security system has not worked for at least four years.
Patients in the hospital's nursing home are also abused, Fiore said.
"I’ve seen patients with just full black and blues, I’ve seen patients with hand marks on their chest; the hand mark doesn’t match theirs," he said. "It’s obvious that it is somebody else’s hand mark."
Shane Suzuki, a public affairs officer for the Miami VA Healthcare System, said in a written statement that Fiore’s allegations have no evidence to substantiate them, The Miami Herald
"Miami VA leadership has every intent of holding employees who mistreat our veterans accountable for their actions," he said. "We will fully investigate any allegations that we do anything less than treat our veterans with the respect and honor they have earned."
Meanwhile, in February, Dr. Tomer Karas, a cardiovascular surgeon at the hospital, sent an email to VA Chief of Surgery Dr. Seth Spector, the CBS station reported,
saying patients died because a device known at the TandemHeart, which keeps blood flowing during sensitive procedures, was locked away in a Broward County, Fla., warehouse.
Karas also relayed a conversation with a VA cardiologist, Dr. Carlos Alfonso, saying that "that patients have died in our cath lab due to inability to offer a higher level of support … even while the TandemHeart was physically available."
Karas confirmed to the station that he wrote the email, but that he was forbidden by the VA to speak further.
Suzuki said the allegations contained in the email were being investigated, but that the physician quoted "has admitted that he was incorrect in his assertion that any patients have died," Suzuki wrote. "There have been zero deaths related to the TandemHeart equipment."
But he would not clarify if he was speaking about Karas or Alfonso, and refused the station permission to speak with either doctor.
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