17 VA Scandals Before Trump's Reform Bill
Last Friday, President Donald Trump signed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. This bill empowers VA Secretary David Shulkin to fire bad employees. Americans are familiar with some of the horrible wait list scandals, but they may not know the stories of "Candy Land," porn on the job, "ghost panels," or many others.
Here are no fewer than 17 scandals at the VA between 2014 and 2017. A special thanks to Concerned Veterans for America, which helped PJ Media compile this list.
1. Barry Coates.
In January 2014, CNN reported the tragic story of Barry Coates, a South Carolina veteran who waited one full year to get a colonoscopy, and died from colon cancer (in 2016).
Even at that point, CNN reported that 82 veterans had died or were suffering serious injuries from delayed diagnosis or treatment for colonoscopies or endoscopies. As many as 7,000 veterans were on a backlog list at VA facilities in Columbia, S.C. and Augusta, Ga.
2. The Phoenix scandal.
The story which first drew major attention to the wait list scandals was the Phoenix VA scandal. Staff at the Phoenix VA kept secret paper wait lists for veterans who requested appointments, and did not reflect requests in the computer system. Veterans waited on these lists for weeks or months to be seen by a doctor, while the delays were conveniently left out of the electronic scheduling system. As many as 40 veterans died.
Sharon Helman, the director at the Phoenix VA, was not fired until six months after the scandal broke, and during that time she collected pay on leave. Helman pled guilty to a felony during the proceedings, but she later appealed her firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). In May 2017, the Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit ruled her firing unconstitutional on a technicality.
The law Trump signed last Friday addressed the technicality, preventing similar ruling sin the future.
3. DeWayne Hamlin.
On President Trump's first day in office, the new president fired DeWayne Hamlin, the VA director for the Caribbean who was arrested for a DUI, found with un-prescripted painkillers, and who attempted to fire a whistleblower for outing his DUI arrest.
Hamlin attempted to fire whistleblower Joseph Colon, who alerted officials to Hamlin's DUI. Hamlin even ordered a subordinate, Rosayma Lopez, to fire Colon. When Lopez refused, he tried to bribe her with $305,000 to quit.
After Hamlin was fired, however, he appealed his firing to the MSPB, and VA spokesman James Hutton told the Daily Caller that Hamlin was brought back to work in May. There have been no reports as to whether the new law Trump signed last week will finally get Hamlin out of there.
4. The Tomah VA "Candy Land."
In January 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Tomah, Wisc. VA medical center gained the nickname "Candy Land" because it handed out so many narcotic painkillers. The hospital's chief of staff, psychiatrist Dr. David Houlihan, was called "the Candy Man." The number of opiate prescriptions more than quintupled under his leadership.
Jacob Ward, an Iraq War veteran, visited the Tomah location for post-traumatic stress disorder. His father said the VA turned him into a drug addict. The son died in September 2013 at the age of 27, of an overdose of heroin and cocaine in a Milwaukee airport.
Houlihan was not fired until November 2015. After a three-year battle, Houlihan finally lost his medical license this past January.
5. Aurora VA costs $1.7 billion.
In March 2015, Glenn Haggstrom, director of the VA's Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, resigned after a building project in Aurora, Colo. got out of control. The VA awarded the initial construction contract in 2010 with a projected cost of around $590 million. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost in 2015 at a staggering $1.73 billion.
An independent government panel ruled that the VA had violated the contract by giving the builders a design that could not be built within budget. The Corps took over the project, but the hospital will not be able to open until next year.
In an interview this month, Haggstrom told The Associated Press (AP) that he still did not know how it happened. "I'm just astounded, quite frankly, I'm absolutely astounded."
6. Whistleblower crackdowns.
Brandon Coleman, an addiction therapist at the Phoenix medical center, told a local ABC news station that suicidal veterans were walking out of the ER unchecked. Interim Director Glen Grippen tried to fire Coleman and placed him on administrative leave for a supposed act of violence in the workplace. An investigation found no evidence and no witnesses to the alleged assault.
Coleman will be returning to work at the VA.
Another whistleblower, Dr. Barbarak Temeck, was suspended over a year after allegations, according to U.S. News & World Report. Her lawyer suggested the suspension was trumped up so officials could silence her after she reported on the terrible quality of care conditions — blood and bone fragments had been found on surgical tools in operating rooms.
7. Lavish year-end bonuses.
In November 2015, AZ Central reported that the VA gave $142 million in performance bonuses in 2014 despite the scandals plaguing the agency. In Arizona alone, where the Phoenix VA stood at the epicenter of the scandals, more than 2,600 VA employees received a total of $2.8 million in bonuses.
Dr. David Houlihan, the "candy man" himself, received a $4,000 bonus. VA construction department heads received bonuses of $8,000, despite the Aurora construction debacle. Claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office dubbed the worst in the country still received $300 to $900 each. Even the felon former Phoenix director Sharon Helman received a $9,080 bonus before her firing, which could not be rescinded.
8. $400,000 in moving costs.
A Philadelphia director, Diana Rubens, and a St. Paul, Minn. director, Kimberley Graves, faced sharp criticism after an inspector general report accused them of pocketing more than $400,000 in moving costs for questionable job moves.
In December and January, officials moved to discipline and reassign Rubens and Graves, but the MSPB rejected that attempt, and in February 2016 the pair were allowed to continue their careers.
Graves, who makes nearly $174,000 per year, got more than $129,000 to move. Rubens, who makes $181,000, received more than $288,000 to move. They allegedly gamed the system by getting jobs with fewer responsibilities but the same pay, and these exorbitant moving costs.
9. Traumatic brain injury (TBI).
In June 2016, a report found that between 2007 and 2015, the VA gave 24,905 veterans a TBI examination with unqualified personnel. This examination determines how much disability compensation a veteran will receive for life. Even one misdiagnosis can cause harm, not just to the veteran but to his friends and family.
"Not only does this have obvious implications for the health of that veteran (what medications/treatments does he/she miss by such a diagnosis) but it has implications for his/her disability claims," Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) Press Secretary John Cooper told PJ Media at the time.
10. "Ghost panels."
VA medical centers in Iowa and South Dakota placed thousands of veterans on "ghost panels," where they were assigned to doctors who no longer worked at the facilities, The AP reported in August 2016.
A total of 2,300 veterans were placed with doctors who no longer worked at two VA centers. At the Iowa City, Iowa location, 1,245 veterans were assigned to absent doctors. In Black Hills, S.D., 1,056 patients were placed with these "ghost panels."
Why "ghost panels?" Because that created the illusion that caseloads were smaller.
11. Costly artwork ... for the blind.
In July 2016, a report alleged that the VA spend $20 million between 2004 and 2014 on costly artwork, ABC News reported. The expenditures included more than $1 million for a courtyard with a large sculpture in Palo Alto, $330,000 for a glass art installation, and $21,000 for an artificial Christmas tree.
An art installation on the side of a parking garage at the Palo Alto facility was specifically meant to honor blind veterans, featuring quotes in Morse code that light up. The irony, critics noted, is that a blind veteran would be unlikely to see the massive artwork that cost $280,000.
12. "New leadership" or recycled leadership?
In October 2016, USA TODAY fact checked VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who had claimed that more than "90 percent" of VA medical centers had "new leadership" or new "leadership teams" since he took over the agency in 2014.
Instead, USA TODAY discovered that the VA had hired just eight medical center directors from outside the VA in that time. Of 140 medical center directors, 92 were new since McDonald took office in July 2014. Of those, only 69 were permanent placements, the rest were interim appointees. Finally, all but eight of those directors already worked at the VA.
13. Dead bodies rotting at VA.
In September 2016, multiple dead bodies were found decomposing at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois. "We now have reports of bodies being left to decompose in the morgue for months on end," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told FoxNews.com. One body had liquefied and the bag burst when staff attempted to move it. A whistleblower concealed his or her identity in fear of retaliation.
At the Bay Pines VA in Seminole, Fla., staff members left the body of a veteran in a shower room for more than nine hours, and then tried to cover up the mistake, the Tampa Bay Times reported last December.
14. "Completely insensitive" staff.
In Durham, N.C., a couple reported seeing a elderly veteran sitting in a wheelchair "groaning and convulsing in pain," while "there were people just sitting there acting like nothing was happening," ABC 11 News reported in March of this year.
The concerned man who reported the story said he offered the elderly vet a wheelchair, but the nurse kicked him out of it and "was very rough with him and just completely insensitive."
An older man who looked deathly ill also came in and was told to wait. "He just kind of laid down and said, 'I can't get up, I won't get up. Please get me a blanket until you can see me,'" the concerned man reported. Security guards helped the man up.
15. Average wait time: 56 days.
At the VA's Veterans Integrated Service Network 6, a network of VA hospitals in North Carolina and Virginia, an audit between April 2016 and January 2017 found that 36 percent of appointments for new patients had wait times longer than 30 days, with the average wait time for patients being 59 days, the Fayetteville Observer reported in March 2017.
This came nearly three years after the original Phoenix VA wait times scandal, and less than a year after it was reported that staff at the Houston VA were still lying about canceling appointments in 2016.
An inspector general report from May of this year also found that 100 veterans died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Los Angeles.
16. Porn at work.
In early April of this year, VA Secretary David Shulkin reported not being able to immediately fire an employee who watched porn on the job, in view of a veteran. "I need the authority as secretary to fire these people immediately," Shulkin told Fox News, adding that employees "who don't show up to work, who do cocaine, and who are watching porn at work, are gonna be fired, because I'm not gonna tolerate it."
The bill Trump signed last Friday finally gave Shulkin that authority.
17. Cockroaches on food trays.
In late May of this year, the inspector general reported discovering cockroaches on food trays at the Hines, Ill. VA hospital. Inspection reports did not mention cockroaches, suggesting a potential cover-up. The hospital has allegedly been serving veterans raw or expired food, and the hospital was infested for cockroaches for years.
"It's disgraceful that American veterans seeking medical care were surrounded by cockroaches while VA officials stood idly by," Dan Caldwell, CVA policy director, told PJ Media at the time.
These 17 scandals underscore just how important reform at the VA really is, and why the bill Trump signed into law last Friday was so necessary. But there is still work to do. As the president said, "Believe me, we're just getting started."