Whistleblower Law Blog

Ongoing Whistleblower Complaints Show VA’s Failure to Fix Hospital Problems, Warns OSC

A stream of whistleblower complaints raises alarms about the ability of a Mississippi veterans hospital to care for its patients, a top government agency warned in an unusual letter to President Obama and members of Congress.

Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), said in the letter that her agency had seen a pattern of complaints about the hospital, the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Jackson, Miss. — but that top officials refused to take the reports seriously.

By law, the OSC reviews all whistleblower complaints for a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing. If wrongdoing is likely, the OSC refers the matter to the appropriate agency head for investigation. The agency prepares a written report, which it then forwards to the President and Congress—and also to the Attorney General, if there’s evidence of a crime.

In the case of VAMC, Ms. Lerner said the OSC had referred five such complaints to Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who is ultimately responsible for the hospital. But she expressed frustration at the VA’s tepid response since the first whistleblower complaint in 2009, which alleged that VAMC was using unsterilized medical instruments, including some that were stained with blood and rust.

Follow-up complaints in 2011 also targeted VAMC’s Sterile Processing Department, claiming that it had not fixed its procedures — and that VAMC had made false statements about earlier investigations to the U.S. Congress and to the public.

The two latest whistleblowers were both doctors; OSC passed their complaints to Mr. Shinseki in February and March.

In one case, a doctor claimed that understaffing was causing VAMC to turn away veterans with valid appointments; nurses to see patients and write narcotics prescriptions instead of doctors; and doctors to prescribe drugs to patients they hadn’t seen.

The most recent complaint alleged that VAMC never notified veterans that a radiologist had failed to read their X-rays or CT scans, or had merely glanced at them — and therefore may have missed crucial signs of disease.

“No efforts appear to have been made by the [VA] at any level” to inform all patients who may have been affected by the radiologist, who has since left VAMC, Ms. Lerner wrote.

Partly in reaction to Ms. Lerner’s letter, the VA conducted an “informational session” for veterans on April 3. Meanwhile, in an open letter, VAMC director Joe Battle called the media attention “disappointing” and called on veterans to take pride in the hospital as “the high ground … the place with all the American flags flying.”

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