Special Counsel: VA Used Dirty Equipment, Wrote Illegal Prescriptions

Monday, 23 Jun 2014 07:37 PM

By Jason Devaney

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is being accused of using dirty medical equipment and handing out illegal prescriptions, and then not taking the allegations seriously, according to an independent federal investigator assigned to take a closer look at the scandal-ridden agency.

U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigator Carolyn Lerner wrote President Barack Obama a letter about her findings, which concluded that the VA hospital system ignored cries from whistleblowers trying to sound the alarm.

"This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans," Lerner wrote in the letter.  "As a result, veterans' health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk."

Lerner referenced a September 2013 letter to Obama in which she detailed problems she found at the Jackson, Miss. VA medical center, which included writing illegal prescriptions and using dirty equipment. That facility also used "ghost clinics" to get around staffing shortages.

"In these clinics, veterans were scheduled for appointments in clinics with no assigned provider, resulting in excessive wait times and veterans leaving the facility without receiving treatment," Lerner wrote last fall.

The Office of Special Counsel, wrote Lerner, is still receiving information from whistleblowers at various VA hospitals, and her office has more than 50 pending cases — "all of which allege threats to patient health or safety," she wrote.

Lerner then detailed several problems within the VA hospital system, issues that were not taken seriously.

The Fort Collins, Colo. facility, for example, had a shortage of providers that resulted in appointments frequently getting canceled, and the staff was told to alter wait times for official record-keeping purposes. In the Brockton, Mass. facility, a whistleblower expressed "serious concerns" regarding patients being neglected.

In another case, the Fort Collins, Colo. facility had elevated levels of the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires' disease, a form of pneumonia.

Other examples of poor practices in VA hospitals cited by Lerner included employees not following the VA's sterilization standards and failing to properly assist elderly patients with daily activities such as bathing, eating, and drinking.

In most of the aforementioned cases, investigators from the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector either found nothing wrong or determined there was no threat to patient health and safety.

Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson, who stepped into his role on a temporary basis last month until officials can find a permanent replacement for former chief Eric Shinseki,  responded to the letter with a statement.

"I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously," he said, according to Politico.

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