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Vets Air Grievances to Acting Director of Flagship VA Medical Center

Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center (Photo: va.gov)
Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center (Photo: va.gov)

"You just can't do this to veterans," said the wife of a sick veteran.

"You're the captain of the Titanic," said a former Army staff sergeant.

"My neurologist, I don't know what he's doing," said a veteran.

"Get rid of them all, except my doctor," said another vet.

But other veterans told a different story about treatment at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center, the flagship hospital in the vast Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, which serves nine million vets annually with 370,000 employees on a $180 billion budget.

"I'm here to say good things about the center," said James Preston, a Vietnam veteran who said he has survived three bouts with cancer. "It was this center that took care of me."

"I have nothing but good to say about the women's clinic" at the center, said former Petty Officer Second Class Lisa Del Duca.

"I haven't had any problems," said former Lance Cpl. Orlando Herrera.

All of this was aimed at retired Army Col. Lawrence Connell, the newly named acting director at the D.C. VA Medical Center and a top policy adviser to VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.

Connell presided at a town hall meeting at the center Wednesday night sponsored by the American Legion. Verna Jones, the Legion's executive director, worked the floor with an open microphone and sought to maintain order when things became confrontational.

"We've got some issues we need to fix," Connell said, but he urged the vets to give the new team a chance. "This is a new VA, and we'll be holding ourselves to the highest of standards. I will be the first to admit we've got to do better; I've got to earn your trust."

Connell also roamed the floor with Jones, coming close and listening intently to the loudest and longest complaints. At times, when the veterans had finished venting, Connell would huddle with them and could be overheard passing on his phone number.

Some of the complaints had to do with the Choice program, allowing vets to choose private care, and the sometimes conflicting diagnoses they receive from private doctors and VA doctors. Other complaints had to do with getting prescriptions filled and appointments made.

And, of course, there were complaints about parking at the center. Connell said he is working on that.

Connell was named acting director last month following a VA Inspector General's report detailing conditions "sufficient to potentially compromise patient safety."

The two million member Legion periodically sponsors "System Worth Saving" town halls at VA facilities nationwide to hear from vets about local services, but the one at the D.C. VA Wednesday night was prompted by the report from VA Inspector General Michael Missal.

In his introductory remarks, Louis Celli, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said the problems outlined in the IG's report should never have occurred at what should be the VA's showcase center. "This should be the shining star on the hill," Celli said.

In his scathing report, Missal said storage areas for medical supplies at the facility were filthy, management was clueless on what was in the storage areas, medical supply rejects may have been used on patients, and more than $150 million in supplies and equipment had never been inventoried.

The risk to the 98,000 vets served by medical center was such that IG's office took the unusual step of issuing a preliminary report to alert Shulkin to the danger.

"Although our work is continuing, we believed it appropriate to publish this Interim Summary Report given the exigent nature of the issues we have preliminarily identified and the lack of confidence in VHA (Veterans Health Administration) adequately and timely fixing the root causes of these issues," Missal said in the report.

The IG's office began looking into the problems based on a whistleblower's complaint describing equipment and supply issues, the report said.

However, Connell disputed how the IG's report came about. He said the VA's Veterans Integrated Service Network first learned of problems at the center and requested a Quality Control Review, which was forwarded to the IG's office.

Despite the problems, "No patients, no patients, have been harmed" by the medical supply chain and management issues at the center, Connell said.

Following the IG's report, Shulkin removed center director Brian Hawkins and named Connell acting director. In addition, Connell said Wednesday night that three center employees with responsibility for acquisition, storage and distribution of inventory have received proposed removals. Federal hiring regulations require employees to receive 30-day notice before being fired or demoted for performance issues.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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