New VA Secretary Pledges Cleanup of Scandal-Plagued DC Hospital

Washington, D.C., Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Washington DC VA Medical Center/Facebook)
Washington, D.C., Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Washington DC VA Medical Center/Facebook)

In his second week on the job, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie pledged a cleanup of the scandal-plagued Washington, D.C., Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center where inspectors found doctors using rusty surgical tools and identified a sense of "complacency" in the facility's leadership.

Wilkie went to VAMC Monday, where he was told that plans were in place for "assuring reliable availability and sterilization of instruments for surgical procedures," the VA said in a release.

Wilkie also was told that an electronic inventory was being set up to make sure that the hospital, serving about 90,000 veterans in the D.C. area, overcomes chronic equipment shortages.

Previous reports from the VA's Office of Inspector General charged that VAMC staffers at times had to make emergency runs to neighboring hospitals to ask for supplies.

The hospital had to borrow bone material for knee replacement surgeries and also ran out of tubes needed for kidney dialysis, forcing staff to go to a private-sector hospital to procure them, the IG's report last year said.

VAMC officials also told Wilkie that they were doing better at making timely appointments, particularly for prosthetics.

"We had a good visit today, and I appreciated hearing from facility and regional leadership on the important work that has been done to address the Inspector General's concerns, as well as plans for resolving all its remaining recommendations," Wilkie said in a statement. "There have been substantial improvements over the past few months in practice management, logistics and prosthetics in particular, and leaders have a strong plan ahead for even more progress in the coming weeks."

Wilkie approved yet another shuffle of VAMC's leadership to implement the changes. The current acting director, Adam M. Robinson Jr., will return to his previous position as director of the VA Maryland Health Care System.

A new permanent director for VAMC has been identified, and the name will be announced "in the near future," the VA said.

In the interim, VAMC Chief of Staff Charles Faselis will serve as acting director of the facility.

Damning reports from VA Inspector General Michael Missal on conditions at VAMC were a factor in the downfall of Wilkie's predecessor as VA Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, who was fired in a Tweet by President Donald Trump in March.

In April 2017, Missal took the unusual step of issuing an emergency report on conditions at VAMC before his inspection was complete to avoid putting patients at risk.

In his scathing report, IG Missal said that storage areas for medical supplies at the VAMC 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.

Shulkin relieved VAMC Director Brian Hawkins and replaced him with Lawrence Connell, one of his top policy advisors and a retired Army colonel.

In early March, just before Shulkin was fired, Missal issued another report warning that for years VAMC had "suffered a series of systemic and programmatic failures to consistently deliver timely and quality patient care."

The report charged that there were staff shortages in several departments and that about $92 million in supplies and equipment were purchased over a two-year period without "proper controls to ensure the purchases were necessary and cost-effective."

In April, Connell was out as temporary director following a dispute over "technical aspects" of his appointment, the VA said.

In his latest report on VAMC, Missal made 25 recommendations for improving care. The VA said Monday that VAMC had implemented six of the 25 recommendations and was working to resolve the remaining 19.

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

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