Late Breaking News
VA Urged to Resolve Whistleblower Complaints About Jackson, MS, VAMC
By Sandra Basu
JACKSON, MS - Despite assurances that problems have been addressed at the G.V. (“Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center here, veterans expressed their anger to VA leaders during a town hall meeting held at the facility last month.
“Y’all are playing with my life. Don’t make me play with yours,” one angry veteran was shown yelling at VA leaders in a TV news clip.
The meeting was the latest in a saga spurred by a letter sent to President Barack Obama from the Office of Special Counsel that stated that, since 2009, OSC has received five separate disclosures of wrongdoing from employees at the medical center.
“Collectively, these disclosures raise questions about the ability of this facility to care for the veterans it serves,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in a March 18 letter to the White House. The letter detailed a variety of allegations: For example, the first whistleblower, who came to OSC in 2009, reported that the medical center’s Sterile Processing Department routinely failed to sterilize medical equipment such as scalpels, nail clippers and bone cutters. A subsequent allegation in 2011 also charged that the medical center used incorrect sterilization procedures.
After the first accusation, VA said it would correct longstanding problems within the VAMC Sterile Processing Department, Lerner wrote. After the second allegation, the letter said that, while VA said it failed to substantiate the claims, the OSC concluded the VA’s findings were “unreasonable,” in part because they were reached without interviewing the whistleblower, who disputed much of the VA’s response.
“It does not appear that the agency has taken significant steps in improving the quality of management, staff training or work product within this Department since its findings regarding the first whistleblower’s allegation more than two years ago,” Lerner wrote.
Other information in the letter included:
- In 2011, a whistleblower said Jackson VAMC public affairs employees were told to issue false statements mischaracterizing findings in the 2009 case involving unsterilized medical equipment. A VA investigation confirmed that inaccurate statements were issued but said they were unintentional because VAMC management was not fully informed.
- In 2012, a physician alleged that chronic understaffing in the Primary Care Unit threatens patient safety. According to the letter, the whistleblower claimed narcotics are prescribed to veterans by nurse practitioners not legally permitted to do so, and physicians are pressured to prescribe narcotics to veterans they have not seen, among other problems. On Feb. 28, 2013, OSC referred this case to the VA Secretary for investigation.
- In 2013, a whistleblower alleged that a former VAMC radiologist failed to properly read thousands of radiology images, leading to missed diagnoses of serious and in some cases fatal illnesses. On March 5, 2013, OSC also referred this case to the VA Secretary for investigation.
At the forum held last month, VA officials, including VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel, MD, and medical center director Joe Battle tried to alleviate concerns.
“Our cleanliness at the hospital is just fine,” Battle told TV news outlets.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders and veterans’ groups are calling for issues at the medical center to be fully resolved.
Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker said in a statement that they had met with Petzel in early March regarding complaints from constituents about conditions at the Jackson VAMC.
At the meeting, Petzel expressed optimism about the recent appointment of Battle as the permanent director of the Jackson VAMC, as well as “recent corrective actions at the medical center to begin improving care and administration..”
In a written statement on March 18, Cochran said, “The bottom line is that whatever problems existed, or still exist, they need to be resolved so that veterans can have confidence in their healthcare system and receive the best care possible. We will continue working with Dr. Petzel and leadership at the Jackson VA to address these issues.”
Meanwhile, American Legion National Cmdr. James E. Koutz said in a written statement that VA “needs to get it right this time.”
“Over the past four years, VA has investigated the Jackson hospital more than once,” he said. “They claimed to have taken steps to fix the problem back in 2009, but four years later our veterans are still at risk because of gross incompetence.”