News & Politics

Report: Cockroaches Found on Food Trays at Illinois VA

Image Via Barbara Kalbfleisch and Shutterstock

Cockroaches were discovered on food trays at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Hines, Illinois, according to a report from the VA Inspector General (IG) Tuesday. The IG also found that inspection reports did not mention cockroaches, suggesting a potential cover-up. The facility also had conditions “favorable to pest infestation.”

“It’s disgraceful that American veterans seeking medical care were surrounded by cockroaches while VA officials stood idly by,” Dan Caldwell, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) policy director, said in a statement.

“We substantiated that at least several patients received food trays with cockroaches on them,” the inspector general reported of the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill. Emails from mental health (MH) staff to Nutrition and Food Services (NFS) managers between 2011 and 2015 reported six complaints from patients that cockroaches were present on food trays delivered to the MH unit via a transportation cart.

The nursing staff explained that “food on patients’ trays is generally covered and trays are clean when they arrive to the unit.” But in these cases, “MH nursing staff and several patients witnessed cockroaches on transportation carts.”

Naturally, the veteran patients “became very upset and distressed.” At one point, the VA hospital ordered pizza because patients were upset and refused to eat the food delivered by transportation carts.

During an inspection last May, the inspector general “observed several food transportation carts that had not been cleaned.” It gets worse. “The wheels of the transportation carts had residual grime and debris because the cleaning process at the facility was not effective,” the report stated. “NFS staff reported that they witnessed cockroaches coming out of the transportation cart wheels.”

In June 2016, a standard operating procedure was developed outlining the cleaning schedule for regular daily and weekly cleanings of food transportation carts. As of March 2017, the last reported cockroach complaint took place in December 2015.

Even so, the inspector general found “open cardboard boxes with dry food products exposed, food items in open cardboard boxes that were stored less than 6 inches from the floor, several cracks in the flooring, water infiltration around the floor drains, and trash receptacles without lids” — all in the main kitchen!

More pernicious, perhaps, the IG reported that “the facility conducted inspections four times a year as required,” but that “reports of the inspections did not include documentation of the presence of cockroaches.” Was this a cover-up?

Furthermore, “leadership had knowledge of unsanitary food service conditions (cockroaches) in the NFS kitchen but had not successfully resolved the problem.”

Between March 2011 and September 2016, no less than ten different people were assigned the director’s position at the Hines VA hospital. The director of the facility during the May 2016 inspector general visit had been assigned to the office in October 2015, and had taken insufficient efforts to address the cockroach problem in early 2016.

Interestingly, the notorious Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA at the center of the VA wait times scandal in 2014, was temporarily the director of the Hines, Ill. VA hospital. Helman’s firing was ruled unconstitutional by the Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit earlier this month on a technicality in the 2014 VA reform bill, despite the fact that Helman is a convicted felon.

“It’s nearly impossible to get terminated at the VA, so employees have very little incentive to follow the rules and many simply stop caring about doing their jobs,” the CVA director, Dan Caldwell, declared. He insisted that “Congress needs to act quickly to give Secretary Shulkin the ability to get these negligent officials out and clean up this toxic culture.”

While the VA Accountability First Act of 2017 passed in March of this year, it included the same provision which the Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit ruled unconstitutional in the Helman case. In response, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a new bill in the Senate, without the provision that could have undone the hard work of holding VA employees accountable to the VA director, in this case David Shulkin.

Shulkin backed the original VA Accountability First Act of 2017 after he found himself unable to fire an employee who watched pornography in front of a veteran in late March.

On Wednesday, the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee (SVAC) passed Rubio’s bill, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 (S.1094), with minimal changes. Among other things, the bill ensures that bad VA employees who are terminated will not remain on VA payroll while appealing their terminations and increases protections for whistleblowers.

“Veterans are now one step closer to receiving the quality of care they earned and deserve from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the fight isn’t over yet,” Caldwell said in a statement. The bill will now go to the Senate, where it is likely to pass. After all, it has bipartisan support — when Rubio introduced it, he did so alongside multiple Democrats.

Other scandals have also plagued the VA during the past year. Last June, the Houston VA was caught falsifying appointments, and this past December, an Oklahoma veteran died with maggots in his wound at the VA. Oh, and early this year, a GAO report revealed that VA employees worked over 1 million hours for unions on the taxpayers’ dime.

These government unions naturally oppose the VA accountability acts. Civil service reform — not just at the VA, but perhaps just as importantly at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elsewhere in the administration — should receive bipartisan support. It is time for public sector unions, which even New Deal founder President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed on principle, to be reined in.