Feds descend on Hines VA amid claims of secret wait lists

Written By Brian Slodysko Posted: 05/15/2014, 10:40am

Federal investigators descended on Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital in the western suburbs Wednesday, after a news report suggested administrators there inflated their performance to reap bonuses.

Word of the feds’ visit prompted Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to call on the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation of all veterans’ hospitals in the state. He called the allegations in the report “credible,” and suggested veterans may have been harmed as a result of the practice.

“I’m going to make sure the inspector general of the VA has the resources to get to the bottom of this at all Illinois [veteran’s hospitals],” Kirk said in a phone interview. “It sparks some emotion for me to see my fellow veterans abused this way.”

The visit here comes after federal investigators swept into a Phoenix veterans’ hospital last month, amid allegations of a cover-up.

Investigators there were tasked with investigating claims that a secret waiting list was allegedly maintained to hide lengthy delays for sick veterans, making it appear as if they saw doctors sooner than they had. In fact, it was claimed, some may have waited months and died before seeing a doctor.

The claims, unproven so far, have thrown the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs into turmoil. Politicians have called for resignations, congressional inquiries are underway, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is appearing before a Senate committee this week.

Kirk said there is a link between Hines and the hospital in Phoenix.

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Sharon Helman, the embattled director for the Phoenix hospital, was director at Hines until 2012, said Charity Hardison, a spokeswoman for Hines. Helman was placed on leave earlier this month, after the scandal in Phoenix erupted, Kirk said.

“It appears to be linked to one discredited official who is currently on leave,” Kirk said. “It is an indication that the two scandals may be linked.”

The federal probe of Hines comes after an employee told CBS News she’d seen indications a similar wait list scheme was being used here.

“Employees are coming to me from all over the hospital, from outpatient, inpatient, surgery, radiology” the employee, Germaine Clarno, told CBS News. She added that the wait list scheme was used “to make numbers look better for their own recognition and for bonuses.”

The hospital said Clarno is president of a local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. A message could not be left for her because her voicemail inbox was full.

But Clarno has a powerful ally in Kirk, who praised her as a “whistleblower.”

“Her report I take as a credible account of misconduct at Hines,” Kirk said, calling her a “patriot.”

Wednesday afternoon, hospital officials acknowledged the allegations while pushing back against claims Clarno made in the report.

“I am not aware of any occurrences of data manipulation here at Hines, past or present, and I have received no evidence or specific facts about data manipulation at the Hines VA,” hospital director Joan Ricard said in an emailed statement.

Hospital officials said Clarno came to them on May 8, expressing concern over a staff email heralding, “excellent wait time percentages for veterans receiving mental health services at Hines.”

Clarno, according to hospital officials, suggested the hospital was keeping a separate wait list.

In her statement, Ricard said she reviewed the hospital’s record-keeping practices and concluded no separate wait list was being kept.

“From my discussion and review of the spreadsheet, I determined it was not a separate wait list,” Ricard said in the statement. “It was a performance improvement tool being used by the service, and was in no way tied into the appointment scheduling process.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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