Now President Trump has a VA headache.
It didn’t take a blistering report about unsanitary conditions and supply shortages at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the District to make Maurice Wilkins upset with the hospital.
The Vietnam War vet started at the facility in 1972, stopped going for years, then returned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks exacerbated his post-traumatic stress disorder.
He remains a patient at the facility on Irving Street NW, one of more than a million served there annually, though he’s not happy with all the staffers, some of whom he said are not responsive to complaints about care.
“This is my only source of medical care,” said the 68-year-old Palmer Park, Md., resident in the 101st Airborne cap. Most staffers are “very good people,” he added. “There are some angels there.” Other veterans also praised the VA hospital.
But with a number of employees, Wilkins complained, “I have run to the end with some of these people.”
So has VA headquarters — belatedly.
The medical center’s director, Brian A. Hawkins, was replaced after a damning report on hospital conditions issued Wednesday by the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The fault, however, doesn’t only reside with him.
“At least some of these issues have been known to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) senior management for some time without effective remediation,” the report said.
VA Secretary David J. Shulkin told reporters the regional office had been aware of lagging supply issues and “had a team in place since March.” When Shulkin “became aware that veterans were at risk” on Wednesday afternoon, he said, “we took immediate action.”
Yet, VHA officials at headquarters knew about some of the problems previously, Inspector General Michael J. Missal said in an interview. He took the unusual step of releasing an interim report because the serious nature of the findings demanded it, plus he had little confidence that VA’s management would resolve the issues promptly.
Trump now confronts a VA scandal on his watch. During the campaign, he called the VA “a disaster” under President Barack Obama. The harsh criticism aside, Trump then appointed Shulkin, Obama’s VA undersecretary of health, to lead the department.
In a matter of three hours Wednesday, the VA appointed one acting director from inside the hospital, then another from outside, Lawrence Connell, a retired Army colonel who was a senior VA policy adviser. A statement said he was chosen after officials decided an interim boss from outside the facility was needed “to concentrate on addressing the many challenges identified in the OIG report, without compromising the ongoing internal review.”
The quick switch placed a Trump supporter in charge of the medical center. Connell was a member of the president’s VA transition team.
Though the report found no patients who were harmed, “challenges” is a soft way to describe the report’s long list of “serious and troubling deficiencies at the Medical Center that place patients at unnecessary risk.”
The report noted:
- “On March 30, the dialysis unit ran out of dialyzer bloodlines and 15 gauge fistula needles, both of which are essential for dialysis treatments.”
- On March 29, a nurse reported “that during an acute episode, she needed to provide oxygen to a patient. The floor was out of oxygen nasal cannulas (tubing that fits into a patient’s nose and provides oxygen). The nurse was able to use one found on the crash cart, but reported the shortage as a risk to patient safety.”
- “On April 11, OIG received an email stating that the operating room (OR) ran out of vascular patches, despite having requested … them two weeks ago. The OR also ran out of Doppler probes.” Open vascular surgery could not be done without those items.
- “On April 11, OIG received an email stating that the OR ran out of sequential compression devices (SCDs). These are devices placed on patients’ legs to prevent blood clots during surgery. Surgery proceeded without the devices.”
The inspector general’s office examined 25 supposedly sterile satellite storage areas and found “numerous ongoing deficiencies,” including:
- Eighteen were dirty.
- Seventeen lacked pressure, temperature and humidity monitoring.
- Five mixed clean and dirty equipment or supplies.
- Five improperly served multiple purposes including office and patient care space.
“It’s unacceptable that any VA medical facility puts patients at risk or wastes resources meant to help veterans,” said Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “All VA leaders who knew about these conditions and didn’t take immediate action to fix them must be held accountable.”
The IG’s stinging criticism was known by patients, but that didn’t stop praise for the hospital.
Steve Webster, a former Army military police officer, said service has been a “roller coaster,” with some areas of needed improvement, during his 40 years as a patient there. But generally, “I’m extremely happy with the VA.”
When Webster, of Bladensburg, Md., needed, but couldn’t afford, oral surgery before a spinal operation, he said Hawkins made sure he got it.
Bill Crawley, a Lusby, Md., veteran, praised his care but acknowledged the report about dirty conditions leaves him “a little skeptical” about taking a scheduled medical test.
“But I’m quite sure they’ll do the right thing,” he said.
Had they done the right thing, the OIG would not have found what it did.