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Employee calls Hines audit flawed, says staff feared fallout

An internal audit of the beleaguered Hines VA hospital may have turned up nothing — but it was flawed, and employees were too intimidated to reveal systemic problems at the west suburban hospital, a Hines employee said Friday at a news conference with Sen. Mark Kirk ,R-Ill.

“The auditors were managers themselves from other VA hospitals,” Germaine Clarno, a social worker at Hines, told reporters gathered in Kirk’s Loop office.

She said the names of those interviewed were made known to hospital staffers.

“How is that not intimidation? People were afraid … They have a choice. Do I lose my job and speak the truth or do I keep my mouth shut and hope somebody else will fight this fight for me?”

The VA has been dogged by allegations of separate wait lists and scheduling irregularities. On Friday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned.

A VA spokesman pointed to a document stating the audit Clarno spoke of was done by VA staffers who are independent of the facility and network they reviewed.

Meanwhile, Hines spokeswoman Charity Hardison said in an email: “We have encouraged employees to feel comfortable reporting any concerns they may have, which is why [a] memo was sent to employees informing them of where they could safely voice concerns.”

The VA audit looked at 216 sites and found “many were flagged for further review because of concerns identified by the site audit team about questionable scheduling practices, signaling a systemic lack of integrity within some Veterans Health Administration facilities,” according to the VA.

Details of individual sites were not yet available. But Hines, Hardison said, “takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the allegations are true, the inappropriate behavior is unacceptable and employees will be held accountable.”

Kirk’s press conference started soon after Shinseki resigned at an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama.

The president said he accepted the retired four-star general’s resignation “with considerable regret.” Obama said Shinseki served with honor, but the secretary told him the VA needs new leadership and he doesn’t want to be a distraction.

“I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem,” Obama said.

Obama said deputy VA secretary Sloan D. Gibson will serve as interim secretary during the search for Shinseki’s replacement.

Kirk had not called for Shinseki’s departure, but said: “Now we have the political opportunity to establish a systemic reform that really works for the VA.”

Also on Friday, Kirk, a retired Navy commander, said he met with Hines “whistleblowers,” which included two doctors, a scheduler and a social worker. The workers, besides Clarno, have not been identified. They have not been granted immunity for speaking out about alleged wrongdoings at the hospital, Kirk said.

The senator said one doctor made a troubling allegation: that boxes of echocardiograms were not immediately analyzed.

“When the physician went back to the box, they found that several of the veterans had already died after the echocardiogram had been taken, but not read,” Kirk said.

The Hines spokeswoman said there are no current delays and pointed to a recent inspector general’s report that said “We evaluated the processing of echocardiograms during January 1, 2012, through April 30, 2013, and found no substantial backlog. Facility staff acknowledged that there had been a problem in 2011.”

But Kirk again called for the Hines’ chief to resign.

“Joan Ricard should step down, especially if what I heard from the whistleblowers is true,” Kirk said.

The Hines spokeswoman said, “The Director and all employees at Hines VA Hospital remain committed to leading this organization and providing the best care our Veterans have earned and deserve.”

Meanwhile, a preliminary VA inspector general probe into the allegations found systemic falsification of appointment records at Phoenix and other locations but has not made a determination on whether any deaths are related to the delays.

The Illinois Congressional delegation mostly praised the VA leadership changes.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger R-Ill. — a major in the Air National Guard — had called for Shinseki to resign. Friday, he issued a statement: “I am encouraged to know that new leadership will have the opportunity to make the massive changes necessary to clean up the broken bureaucracy at the VA. Secretary Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but the systemic problems we’ve seen require a new direction and a renewed commitment from both the Administration and Congress,” said Kinzinger.

Rep. Bill Foster D-Ill, said Shinseki “did the right thing by stepping down, and I look forward to reviewing the report the President has demanded, but I want action now. I support immediately reforming the system for granting bonuses for administrators who reduce backlogs, as that appears to have been an incentive to cheat and cover-up these unforgivable delays in caring for our veterans.”

But Rep. Randy Hultgren R-Ill., said in his statement that Shinseki’s departure alone is not enough.

“It’s going to take more than a resignation and duct tape to fix this mess,” he said.

Contributing: AP