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Cincinnati VA controversy could be Trump nominee's first chance at reform

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Posted at 5:15 AM, Dec 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-19 05:15:17-05

CINCINNATI - The head of an outside review panel investigating the Cincinnati VA Medical Center told WCPO that the investigation will not conclude within the 90-day time frame described by VA leaders in August.

“We are close,” said Dr. Eugene Goldman, a podiatric surgeon at the Coatesville VA Medical Center in Pennsylvania, on Dec. 12. “We will be wrapping this up by mid-January.”

The new timeline means any disciplinary action or reforms recommended by the panel will likely be decided by the next VA Secretary, not Bob McDonald, the former Procter & Gamble Co. CEO who left Cincinnati to lead the VA in 2014.

Goldman shared few details about the formal board of inquiry that was announced by McDonald in August. It is expected to be the last of at least a dozen different investigations and patient-care reviews that have taken place at the Cincinnati VA since February, when the Scripps Washington Bureau and WCPO published a series of reports exploring patient-care problems, cost cutting and managerial misconduct.

Read the Scripps Washington Bureau/WCPO investigation here

The reports led to the demotion of the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Barbara Temeck, who then became a whistleblower, alleging that University of Cincinnati doctors were paid for hours they didn’t work.

“These are very technical investigations," McDonald told reporters after his speech at the American Legion’s 98th national convention in Cincinnati in August. "They involve many aspects of the law, whistleblower law and other things. So, we have to be very, very careful to not disclose what’s going on until we get to the end and we have a conclusion."

The Cincinnati VA’s acting medical director, Glenn Costie, said in August that the inquiry board would begin with closed-door hearings in early September and conclude in roughly 90 days. The hearings actually began in early October. Goldman said the panel still wants to hear from more witnesses by phone or teleconference.

He’s hoping to submit a report to the VA’s central office by mid-January, after which persons named in the report will be permitted to submit additional comments. He isn’t sure when the report’s final version will be made public. He also declined to comment on any findings made by his investigative panel thus far.

President-elect Donald Trump has reportedly interviewed at least three candidates to be the VA's next leader, including former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Jeff Miller, the retiring chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Fox News host Pete Hegseth, former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, had a second meeting with Trump on Thursday.

Veteran’s groups have been asking McDonald to be retained. McDonald declined to comment on Trump's selection process or reveal what steps he might take to resolve the Cincinnati controversy.

"We cannot speak on, or speculate the circumstances surrounding a report that is not in our hands," the VA said via email. "We must respect due process."

A Trump nominee would be more likely than McDonald to shake things up in Cincinnati, said Nathan Anderson, national field director for Concerned Veterans of America.

Anderson said it’s not enough that the VA has recruited military veterans to its top two leadership posts in Cincinnati. It has yet to fire any employees or release final conclusions on internal probes of whistleblower allegations.

“Veterans expect a strong leader at the VA, but McDonald’s leadership has been anything but strong,” he said. ”Veterans in the Cincinnati area deserve to know what’s really going on at their hospital.”

Anderson’s group has lobbied for reforms that would make it easier for the VA to fire employees “who perform poorly or guilty of misconduct.” It also wants veterans to have greater access to care outside the VA system. He called Cincinnati the poster child for VA dysfunction in its lack of response to whistleblower concerns.

“We’re watching these individuals not being held accountable for their actions," he said. "They’re just being swept under the rug on administrative leave with full pay or maybe reassignment with benefits because the administration is afraid to make tough calls.”