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Illinois Senators Demand Reform After ‘Disturbing Disclosures’ at State’s VA Facility

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) talks to Former Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON – Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) last week called on Veterans Affairs to pinpoint and eradicate mismanagement at Illinois’ Marion VA Medical Center, which has been plagued by allegations of poor patient care, whistleblower retaliation and nepotism.

The lawmakers’ request followed a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday between Durbin, Duckworth and VA Secretary David Shulkin, an “urgent” meeting the senators called for in early July. That month, Durbin and Duckworth detailed a “series of disturbing disclosures” at the Marion VA.

Allegations include clinical errors, patient record manipulation and falsification and hidden wait time data, which according to a July 13 letter from the lawmakers to Shulkin could have resulted in the deaths of patients. Facility staff members have reached out to the senators’ office, alleging that when these complaints were aired to superiors, they were left unaddressed or ignored.

July’s letter to Shulkin followed a separate letter written about two weeks earlier to VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal. Durbin and Duckworth demanded an independent investigation into patient care and management issues at the Illinois facility. Marion staff described to the senators examples of “nepotism and intimidation” at the facility. This toxic environment, according to the May 26 letter, led to several resignations of key medical professionals at Marion.

“Our veterans deserve the very best care they can get, and any allegation that they receive anything less demands immediate attention and a thorough review by VA leadership,” Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot in the Iraq war who lost both of her legs, said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who also has pressed the VA about the facility, called for an investigation last month as well, while citing a VA National Center for Patient Safety memorandum detailing the state of patient care at the facility. According to the memo, care has been deteriorating since at least 2014.

The memo draws attention to the deaths of 15 veterans who died while at the facility’s VA Community Living Center or shortly after leaving the center. The memo also describes how Mel Gutierrez, the facility’s chief of logistics, improperly hired his wife to serve as the surgery department’s administrative officer.

“Allegations of personnel mismanagement that are impacting patient care at Marion VA Medical Center are extremely concerning to me, especially given the history of mismanagement at this facility,” Durbin said in a statement. “Today, Senator Duckworth and I pressed Secretary Shulkin to hold the Marion VA accountable for implementing true management reforms that enhance the quality of care for our nation’s heroes and protect whistleblowers.”

The American Legion, a nonprofit veterans’ organization, performs routines visits and holds town hall meetings at troubled VA facilities around the country each year. Members of the organization said in an interview on Monday that Marion will be a key site visit in 2018. The group each year works through a list of 25 to 30 sites, which are considered for a total of 12 to 15 site visits.

“I’m pretty sure Marion will percolate somewhere close to the top of that list,” the American Legion’s System Worth Saving program coordinator Roscoe Butler said Monday.

American Legion members last visited Marion in 2012, when it detailed a series of concerns regarding transportation, childcare and women’s health issues at the facility. Following the site visits, the organization delivered a series of recommendations to the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees and VA secretary, which is standard for such visits. Butler said the organization has been pleased so far with Shulkin’s response to allegations at Marion and the direction of the VA under his leadership.

“He convened a commission to go in and look into the allegations. He took swift action to remove the director and the chief of staff and appointed an interim director to come in,” Butler said. “We’re pleased with the way he’s coming in, being transparent with members of Congress and veterans services’ organizations. He has had open and candid meetings with the VSOs, and has solicited our input. So we’re very pleased with his interaction with the veteran community, especially veteran services organizations.”