Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., met Friday with a White House official to call for removing upper management at Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital, which he said would create a culture of accountability for the embattled facility.
Kirk also met with Hines director Joan Ricard, whom he has repeatedly recommended be removed.
He again called for her termination, adding “I suggested to her that she get a criminal lawyer to defend her against the upcoming FBI investigation I’m going to recommend.”
The Illinois senator met with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to address a plethora of issues at Hines, including long wait times for veterans, and even an alleged mold problem. Kirk’s staff issued photos of what they said was mold discovered in a newly renovated area of the hospital.
Kirk first met with Nabors and hospital whistleblowers, including Germaine Clarno, a Hines social worker who is local president of a union representing hospital employees. He then met with Nabors, Hines representatives, including Ricard, as well as Sen. Dick Durbin and congressional officials.
Kirk suggested the hospital take on a Navy culture:
“In the Navy, Joan would have been immediately relieved of command,” Kirk said, calling her “a civil servant with an attitude.”
The meeting came after Kirk wrote a letter to Richard Griffin, acting inspector general of the Department of Veteran Affairs, to let him known of concerns he had at the hospital.
On July 21, Hines opened a new wing with nine operating rooms, which, Kirk wrote, could “jeopardize the health of our veterans due to reports of mold.”
Kirk said in the letter that numerous whistleblowers had approached his office about the new operating room, citing consistent flooding and the presence of mold throughout the newly renovated wing.
Employee reports shown to Kirk cite a “high concentration” of mold in two rooms during an April 2014 inspection, the letter said. Mold also was found in a June inspection.
“I am concerned that years of flooding and water damage in the old operating room has not been addressed in the new renovation project and I ask that your office investigate these allegations before veterans are exposed to mold while on the operating table,” Kirk wrote.
Clarno said she told Nabors about the mold Friday.
“We have a serious problem of water leakage, even to behind the walls and through the facade. And what’s happening is just band aids are being put on so when they see mold, they cut it out,” Clarno said.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said he also met Friday with Hines management as well as representatives of veterans groups.
He wouldn’t comment specifically on Ricard, but said, “If anyone has been guilty of lying or wrongdoing in the VA, they’ve got to go. I don’t care who they are or at what level.”
But he added that “the overwhelming number of people working in the VA care for these vets, love the vets and the vets love them back.”
Hines issued a statement on Friday saying “the safety and well-being” of veterans is their highest concern. Hines spokeswoman Charity Hudson said the leaks were caused by heavy rains in April 2014 in “aging infrastructure” in the area designated for the new operating room prior to its opening.
“Infection Control experts inspected the area, took air quality samples, ensured that the area was remediated, and took additional air quality samples following remediation. Repeat testing revealed that our remediation actions had resolved the issue and the mold was no longer present,” Hudson said in an email.
Hines is no stranger to scandal. A nationwide audit recently released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that nearly 900 veterans had requested appointments at Illinois’ Veterans Administration hospitals in the past decade but not received them.
Contributing: Art Golab