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Watchdog report: Failed VA leadership put patients at risk

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WASHINGTON — As a top Veterans Administration official in the Obama administration, current Secretary David Shulkin took no action to fix longstanding problems of dirty syringes and equipment shortages that put patients at risk at a major veterans hospital, according to an investigation released Wednesday that finds “failed leadership” and a “climate of complacency” at the agency.

The 150-page report by the VA internal watchdog offers new details to its preliminary finding last April of patient safety issues at the Washington, D.C., medical center. Painting a grim picture of communications breakdowns, chaos and spending waste at the government’s second largest department, the report found that at least three VA program offices directly under Shulkin’s watch knew of “serious, persistent deficiencies” when he was VA undersecretary of health under former President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2016.

Shulkin, who was elevated to VA secretary last year by President Donald Trump, told government investigators that he did “not recall” ever being notified of problems.

The findings are the latest in a series of problems coming to the light at the VA under Shulkin, who has been struggling to keep a grip on his job since a blistering report by the inspector general last month concluded that he had violated ethics rules by improperly accepting Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then-chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.

He also faces a rebellion among some VA staff and has issued a sharp warning to them: Get back in line or get out.

“I suspect that people are right now making decisions on whether they want to be a part of this team or not,” he said last month.

The latest IG investigation found poor accounting procedures leading to taxpayer waste, citing at least $92 million in overpriced medical supplies, along with a threat of data breaches as reams of patients’ sensitive health information sat in 1,300 unsecured boxes.

No patient died as a result of the patient safety issues at the Washington facility dating back to at least 2013, which resulted in costly hospitalizations, “prolonged or unnecessary anesthesia” while medical staff scrambled to find needed equipment at the last minute as well as delays and cancellations of medical procedures. The report also noted improvements made at the Washington facility since the IG’s first report in April, when Shulkin replaced the medical center’s director and pledged broader improvements.

Still, VA inspector general Michael Missal cautioned of potential problems without stronger oversight across the VA network of more than 1,700 facilities.




Image: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks at a news conference

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks at a news conference at the Washington Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington on March 7, 2018.