I-Team 8 looks into preventable deaths at VA clinics

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – I-Team 8′s chief investigative reporter Karen Hensel has spent years uncovering the long wait times for benefits, the lack of care and deaths of veterans in Indiana VA hospitals. Congress is demanding change, forcing transparency and accountability from the VA.

The deaths include decorated Iraq war veterans who shot or hanged themselves after being turned away from mental help. Since 9/11, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid out $200 million to almost 1,000 families in wrongful death cases – that includes in Indianapolis.

At the Roudebush VA Medical Center, at least eight patients died from 2003 to 2011 in what the VA classified as a wrongful death.

The non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2003, one veteran’s case was classified as “Failure to treat, failure to diagnose -for example, concluding the patient has no disease or condition.” The family got $65,000 in that case.

Another veteran died after a “wrong procedure or treatment.”  The family given $120,000 for that death.

The highest payout from Roudebush of $200,000 came in 2009 in what was termed “failure to monitor.”  In all, the report found 13 preventable deaths in Indiana with the VA paying out $1.4 million to Hoosier families.

The revelation of the deaths comes at a time the VA is under intense scrutiny from congress. Rep. Jackie Walorski (IN-R) also sits on the House Veterans Affairs committee which is the oversight of the VA.

“The recent news at least 31 deaths at VA medical centers nationwide were completely preventable is only the tip of the iceberg of the complete mismanagement of this department,” she said.

I-Team 8 has repeatedly reported findings of bonuses handed to senior VA employees.

“It’s easier for those people to receive a bonus than it actually is for them to be fired,” House VA committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said.

I-Team 8 checked federal records and found the medical director of Roudebush in Indianapolis received bonuses totaling $1,700 during two of the years veterans died preventable deaths.

But in Pittsburgh, five-figure performance bonuses were handed out to hospital directors as a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease spread through the VA hospital. In Waco, Texas, it was a $53,000 bonus.

“If you’re presiding over a bureaucracy that is failing our veterans, you shouldn’t be receiving bonuses, you should be gone,” House Speakers John Boehner (R-OH) said.

At a budget hearing on March 13, 2014, Congress pressed for proof of VA staff disciplined after medical errors resulted in a veterans death.

“In 2012 we dismissed, involuntarily removed, over 3,000 employees. In 2013 we did the same thing. In those two years of the 6,000 fired, just six were senior managers,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki explained.

At a press conference, the members of congress agreed the majority of VA employees are doing a thorough and careful job.  Congress is stepping in with a new VA accountability bill that would allow the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire or demote the federally protected employees, the senior executives, for performance problems.  This is all about forcing transparency and accountability to the VA. The committee which is the watchdog of the VA says even they can’t get answers to questions they asked two years ago.

Meanwhile, I-Team 8′s calls to the medical director at Roudebush VA Medical Center were not returned.

I -Team 8 is breaking down hundreds of pages of documents to determine if the numbers of wrongful death cases are even higher in Indiana.

Stats:

  • 22 million Americans rely on the VA
  • The VA employs 300,000 people
  • 20 percent of those employees are veterans themselves
  • The VA anticipates seeing 100,000 new veterans in the coming year
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