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VA overhauling medical inspector’s office after scathing report

The Veterans Affairs Department is overhauling its medical inspector’s office after a federal investigative agency slammed the division for its frequent use of the “harmless error” defense when problems occur within the VA health network.

The agency this week appointed a new acting director for the medical inspector’s office and decommissioned the division’s hotline and its Web site: Individuals are now redirected to file concerns about the medical system with the VA’s inspector general.

Gerard Cox, a physician and Gulf War veteran who previously served as a top official for health policy within the Veterans Health Administration, will lead the medical inspector’s office on an interim basis, according to a VA announcement.

“I expect Dr. Cox to help us restructure OMI to better serve veterans and create a strong internal-audit function, which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront,” said acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over the agency in the wake of its recent scheduling scandal.

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that deals largely with whistleblower complaints, issued a letter to President Obama last month that suggested the VA medical inspector’s office has abused the harmless-error defense, preventing the department from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems.

The letter cited one example in which the VA substantiated claims of improper credentialing, unlawful narcotic prescriptions, unsterile medical devices and noncompliant pharmacy equipment used for chemotherapy drugs at the agency’s medical center in Jackson, Miss. Despite those issues, the VA determined there were no negative impacts on the health and safety of veterans seeking care there, according to the OSC.

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said veterans’ health and safety is “unnecessarily put at risk” when the VA downplays such issues. She recommended that the agency designate a high-level official to lead efforts to correct the problem, including through disciplinary actions and by determining how widespread the problem has become.

Gibson responded to the OSC letter by ordering a review of the medical inspector’s office.  He said the appointment of a new interim director for the division will help improve VA oversight.

The acting chief also accepted the resignation this week of John Pierce, the chief medical inspector since 2004.