Authorities Investigating 'Person of Interest' in Suspicious Deaths at VA, Senator Says

In this Nov. 1, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters after a debate with Patrick Morrisey in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
In this Nov. 1, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters after a debate with Patrick Morrisey in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)

Multiple investigations have focused on a "person of interest" and possible wrongful injections of insulin in the suspicious deaths of several veterans at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, according to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.

A wrongful death suit filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs last week by the family of one of the veterans charges that an autopsy performed by an armed forces medical examiner ruled the 2018 death of 82-year-old retired Army Sgt. Maj. Felix Kirk McDermott a homicide.

The lawsuit also charges that there were nine or 10 other suspicious deaths at the Clarksburg facility, according to the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram newspaper, which first reported on the allegations.

In a statement Monday, Manchin said he had been told by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and Dr. Glenn Snider, director of the Clarksburg VA, that there is a "person of interest" being investigated in the suspicious deaths and that the person "is no longer in any contact with veterans at the VA facility."

Related: Vietnam Vet's Death Ruled Homicide Amid Investigation into Deaths at VA Hospital

"As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I will do everything in my power to investigate these accusations and get to the bottom of what happened," Manchin said.

The McDermott family's wrongful death claim says that McDermott, a Vietnam veteran, entered the Clarksburg facility on April 6, 2018. It alleges that he died three days later from an insulin injection that was not ordered by a doctor or required by his condition.

Last October, a deputy medical examiner with the Defense Health Agency at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, performed an autopsy and ruled the death a homicide, the Parkersburg News and Sentinel reported.

The suspicious deaths have triggered multiple investigations by the VA itself, the VA's Office of Inspector General and federal law enforcement authorities.

In a statement, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said that his office "has been working with our federal law enforcement partners to investigate the allegations of potential wrongdoing resulting in patient deaths" at the Clarksburg VA.

"As is always the case, the VA OIG works with the department to identify and urgently address allegations related to patient safety," Missal said.

An unannounced week-long inspection by the IG's office of the Clarksburg VA in May 2018 found that the facility generally delivered good care. But the IG cited discrepancies in the tracking of so-called "sentinel events."

Such events are defined by the VA as an "incident or condition that results in patient death, permanent harm, severe temporary harm, or intervention required to sustain life."

The IG report on the inspection, issued last October, said that facility managers had been asked for a list of sentinel events at Clarksburg from September 2015 through May 7, 2018, and the managers initially stated that there were none.

However, a review of annual safety reports identified six incidents that appeared to "meet the criteria for sentinel events, for example a suicide, malfunction of laser equipment during surgery, and administration of a wrong medication," the IG report states.

After more discussion, the managers "re-evaluated the [six] cases and identified one as a sentinel event," although that particular case was not further identified in the report.

The report found that the Clarksburg managers "did not follow local policy for single identified sentinel events and disclose relevant information to the patient or the patient's representative."

According to the wrongful death claim, filed for the McDermott family by the Tiano O'Dell personal injury law firm of Charleston, West Virginia, the IG's office ordered the exhumation of McDermott's body "because of the suspicious manner of [his] death," the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram reported.

Citing the claim filed by the law firm's Tony O'Dell, the newspaper reported that Melanie Proctor, McDermott's daughter, was told by unnamed VA investigators that her father was wrongfully injected with insulin, although he was not a diabetic.

Proctor was also told that "there was evidence that nine or 10 other patients of the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center had been wrongfully injected with insulin in their abdomen, thereby causing their deaths," O'Dell wrote in the claim, according to the newspaper.

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

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