A new letter to President Obama verifies VA psychiatric care staff ignored veterans for years without providing basic assessments and care for their psychiatric conditions. This confirms suspicions that VA’s mental health care accountability systems are completely defunct.
When confronted by the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent oversight agency, VA claimed the neglected veterans were not harmed by the lack of care. VA’s own Office of Medical Inspector (OMI) claimed the refusal to provide health care had no “impact on patient care.” In response to the outrageous deception, OSC publicly slammed VA’s review agency in a letter to President Obama that is now circulating across the internet. In addition to this confirmation, numerous other allegations were confirmed by OSC and reported in the letter.
While President Obama has yet to respond, Secretary Sloan Gibson issued a typical statement acknowledging the problem and then expressing disappointment. You can bet not much will come of the revelation unless veterans keep the pressure on:
I respect and welcome the letter and the insights from the Office of Special Counsel. 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.
Read more of this criminal treatment of veterans and whistleblowers in the full letter to President Obama posted below:
[Download the OSC Report to President Obama pdf]
OSC REPORT ON VA HEALTH CARE INVESTIGATION FAILURES
June 23, 2014
The White House
Re: Continued Deficiencies at Department of Veterans Affairs’ Facilities
Dear Mr. President:
I am providing you with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) findings on whistleblower disclosures from employees at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi (Jackson VAMC). The Jackson VAMC cases are part of a troubling pattern of responses by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to similar disclosures from whistleblowers at VA medical centers across the country. The recent revelations from Phoenix are the latest and most serious in the years-long pattern of disclosures from VA whistleblowers and their struggle to overcome a culture of non-responsiveness. Too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care.
As the VA re-evaluates patient care practices, I recommend that the Department’s new leadership also review its process for responding to OSC whistleblower cases. In that regard, I am encouraged by the recent statements from Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who recognized the significant contributions whistleblowers make to improving quality of care for veterans. My specific concerns and recommendations are detailed below.
In a letter dated September 17, 2013, I informed you about numerous disclosures regarding patient care at the Jackson VAMC made by Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, Dr.
Charles Sherwood, and five other whistleblowers at that facility. The VA substantiated these disclosures, which included improper credentialing of providers, inadequate review of radiology images, unlawful prescriptions for narcotics, noncompliant pharmacy equipment used to compound chemotherapy drugs, and unsterile medical equipment. In addition, a persistent patient-care concern involved chronic staffing shortages in the Primary Care Unit. In an attempt to work around this issue, the facility developed “ghost clinics.” 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.
Despite confirming the problems in each of these (and other) patient-care areas, the VA refused to acknowledge any impact on the health and safety of veterans seeking care at the Jackson VAMC. In my September 17, 2013 letter, I concluded:
“[T]he Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has consistently failed to take responsibility for identified problems. Even in cases of substantiated misconduct, including acknowledged violations of state and federal law, the VA routinely suggests that the problems do not affect patient care.”
A detailed analysis of Dr. Hollenbeck’s and Dr. Sherwood’s disclosures regarding patient care at the Jackson VAMC is enclosed with this letter. I have also enclosed a copy of the agency reports and the whistleblowers’ comments.
Ongoing Deficiencies in VA Responses to Whistleblower Disclosures
OSC continues to receive a significant number of whistleblower disclosures from employees at VA facilities throughout the country. We currently have over 50 pending cases, all of which allege threats to patient health or safety. I have referred 29 of these cases to the VA for investigation. This represents over a quarter of all cases referred by OSC for investigation government-wide.
I remain concerned about the Department’s willingness to acknowledge and address the impact these problems may have on the health and safety of veterans. The VA, and particularly the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI), has consistently used a “harmless error” defense, where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected. 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. As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk. Two recent cases illustrate the negative consequences of this approach.
First, in response to a disclosure from a VA employee in Fort Collins, CO, OSC received an OMI report confirming severe scheduling and wait time problems at that facility. The report confirmed multiple violations of VA policies, including the following:
- A shortage of providers caused the facility to frequently cancel appointments for veterans. After cancellations, providers did not conduct required follow-up, resulting in situations where “routine primary care needs were not addressed.”
- The facility “blind scheduled” veterans whose appointments were canceled, meaning veterans were not consulted when rescheduling the appointment. If a veteran subsequently called to change the blind-scheduled appointment date, schedulers were instructed to record the appointment as canceled at the patient’s request. This had the effect of deleting the initial “desired date” for the appointment, so records would no longer indicate that the initial appointment was actually canceled by the facility.
- At the time of the OMI report, nearly 3,000 veterans were unable to reschedule canceled appointments, and one nurse practitioner alone had a total of 975 patients who were unable to reschedule appointments.
- Staff were instructed to alter wait times to make the waiting periods look shorter.
- Schedulers were placed on a “bad boy” list if their scheduled appointments were greater than 14 days from the recorded “desired dates” for veterans.
In addition, OSC is currently investigating reprisal allegations by two schedulers who were reportedly removed from their positions at Fort Collins and reassigned to Cheyenne, WY, for not complying with the instructions to “zero out” wait times. After these employees were replaced, the officially recorded wait times for appointments drastically “improved,” even though the wait times were actually much longer than the officially recorded data.
Despite these detailed findings, the OMI report concluded, “Due to the lack of specific cases for evaluation, OMI could not substantiate that the failure to properly train staff resulted in a danger to public health and safety.” This conclusion is not only unsupportable on its own, but is also inconsistent with reports by other VA components examining similar patient-care issues. For example, the VA Office of Inspector General recently confirmed that delays in access to patient care for 1,700 veterans at the Phoenix Medical Center “negatively impacted the quality of care at the facility.”
In a second case, a VA psychiatrist disclosed serious concerns about patient neglect in a long-term mental health care facility in Brockton, MA. The OMI report substantiated allegations about severe threats to the health and safety of veterans, including the following:
- A veteran with a 100 percent service-connected psychiatric condition was a resident of the facility from 2005 to 2013. In that time, he had only one psychiatric note written in his medical chart, in 2012, when he was first examined by the whistleblower, more than seven years after he was admitted. The note addressed treatment recommendations.
- A second veteran was admitted to the facility in 2003, with significant and chronic mental health issues. Yet, his first comprehensive psychiatric evaluation did not occur until 2011, more than eight years after he was admitted, when he was assessed by the whistleblower. No medication assessments or modifications occurred until the 2011 consultation.
Despite these findings, OMI failed to acknowledge that the confirmed neglect of residents at the facility had any impact on patient care. Given the lack of accountability demonstrated in the first OMI report, OSC requested a follow-up report. The second report did not depart from the VA’s typical “harmless error” approach, concluding: “OMI feels that in some areas [the veterans’] care could have been better but OMI does not feel that their patient’s rights were violated.” Such statements are a serious disservice to the veterans who received inadequate patient care for years after being admitted to VA facilities.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples. Rather, these cases are part of a troubling pattern of deficient patient care at VA facilities nationwide, and the continued resistance by the VA, and OMI in most cases, to recognize and address the impact on the health and safety of veterans. The following additional examples illustrate this trend:
- In Montgomery, AL, OMI confirmed a whistleblower’s allegations that a pulmonologist copied prior provider notes to represent current readings in over 1,200 patient records, likely resulting in inaccurate patient health information being recorded. OMI stated that it could not substantiate whether this activity endangered patient health.
- In Grand Junction, CO, OMI substantiated a whistleblower’s concerns that the facility’s drinking water had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria, and standard maintenance and cleaning procedures required to prevent bacterial growth were not performed. After identifying no “clinical consequences” resulting from the unsafe conditions for veterans, OMI determined there was no substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.
- In Ann Arbor, MI, a whistleblower alleged that employees were practicing unsafe and unsanitary work practices and that untrained employees were improperly handling surgical instruments and supplies. As a result, OMI partially substantiated the allegations and made 12 recommendations. Yet, the whistleblower informed OSC that it was not clear whether the implementation of the corrective actions resulted in better or safer practices in the sterilization and processing division. OMI failed to address the whistleblower’s specific continuing concerns in a supplemental report.
- In Buffalo, NY, OMI substantiated a whistleblower’s allegation that health care professionals do not always comply with VA sterilization standards for wearing personal protective equipment, and that these workers occasionally failed to place indicator strips in surgical trays and mislabeled sterile instruments. OMI did not believe that the confirmed allegations affected patient safety.
- In Little Rock, AR, OMI substantiated a whistleblower’s allegations regarding patient care, including one incident when suction equipment was unavailable when it was needed to treat a veteran who later died. OMI’s report found that there was not enough evidence to sustain the allegation that the lack of available equipment caused the patient’s death. After reviewing the actions of the medical staff prior to the incident, OMI concluded that the medical care provided to the patient met the standard of care.
- In Harlingen, TX, the VA Deputy Under Secretary for Health confirmed a whistleblower’s allegations that the facility did not comply with rules on the credentialing and privileging of surgeons. The VA also found that the facility was not paying fee-basis physicians in a timely manner, resulting in some physicians refusing to care for VA patients. The VA, however, found that there was no substantial and specific danger to public health and safety resulting from these violations.
- In San Juan, PR, the VA’s Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care Operations substantiated a whistleblower’s allegations that nursing staff neglected elderly residents by failing to assist with essential daily activities, such as bathing, eating, and drinking. OSC sought clarification after the VA’s initial report denied that the confirmed conduct constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health. In response, the VA relented and revised the report to state that the substantiated allegations posed significant and serious health issues for the residents.
The goal of any effective whistleblower system is to encourage disclosures, identify and examine problem areas, and find effective solutions to correct and prevent identified problems from recurring. Acting Secretary Gibson recognized as much in a June 13, 2014, statement to all VA employees. He specifically noted, “Relatively simple issues that front-line staff may be aware of can grow into significantly larger problems if left unresolved.” I applaud Acting Secretary Gibson for recognizing the importance of whistleblower disclosures to improving the effectiveness and quality of health care for our veterans and for his commitment to identifying problems early in order to find comprehensive solutions.
Moving forward, I recommend that the VA designate a high-level official to assess the conclusions and the proposed corrective actions in OSC reports, including disciplinary actions, and determine if the substantiated concerns indicate broader or systemic problems requiring attention. My staff and I look forward to working closely with VA leadership to ensure that our veterans receive the quality health care services they deserve.
As required by 5 U.S.C. § 1213(e)(3), I have sent copies of the agency reports and whistleblowers’ comments to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. I have also filed copies of the redacted reports and the whistleblowers’ comments in OSC’s public file, which is available online at www.osc.gov.
Carolyn N. Lerner
Benjamin Krause is an award winning investigative reporter, Veterans Benefits Law attorney, and disabled veteran of the US Air Force, where he served in its Special Operations Command. He attended Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Law School using VA Vocational Rehabilitation.
While in law school, Benjamin won his decade-long fight for full disability benefits and now helps others do the same with this website and his guide, the Voc Rehab Survival Guide for Veterans. Since its first publication in 2011, the guide has helped the veteran community receive millions in untapped benefits through the VA Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment program.