CINCINNATI - The Cincinnati VA Medical Center has opened a new investigation to more fully explore whistleblower allegations at the hospital system caring for 43,000 local veterans.
The formal board of inquiry is the latest in 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.
The outside review panel will take testimony from at least 30 witnesses, starting in early September, said Glenn Costie, acting director of the Cincinnati VA. The goal is to send a final report to VA Secretary Bob McDonald within roughly 90 days.
“These are very technical investigations," McDonald told reporters after his speech the the American Legion’s 98th national convention in Cincinnati. "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."
Costie said the panel will take testimony from any Cincinnati VA employee who wants to provide it, including Dr. Barbara Temeck, the hospital’s former chief of staff. Dr. Temeck was demoted after VA investigators substantiated an allegation that she prescribed pain medication for the wife of her boss.
After her demotion, Dr. Temeck filed a whistleblower complaint of her own, alleging she was unfairly targeted by surgical staffers who wasted millions of dollars at the Cincinnati VA by collecting "full-time salaries and benefits" for "less than full-time work."
Costie and McDonald both declined to comment on Dr. Temeck’s claims.
“We are honoring the allegations made by Dr. Temeck by having an outside board look into her allegations,” Costie said. “It will be an opportunity to get on the record all the facts regarding those allegations. The Secretary has made a big commitment to honoring whistleblowers. Dr. Temeck is definitely in that classification. We want to hear all the facts around her allegations.”
Costie said the investigative panel will be chaired by a “national program leader for boards of investigation” within the VA who has conducted similar inquiries after VA scandals in Dayton and Phoenix.
“I call him our CSI for VA,” Costie said. “He’s very detailed and he will get to the bottom of the facts. I’m very hopeful that will put to rest these allegations and get the facts so the public can be aware of what’s going on here.”
McDonald said he has been keeping a close watch on Cincinnati since a group of 34 whistleblowers made their allegations public in a series of Scripps and WCPO reports six months ago. He praised the hospital for passing a recent inspection by the Joint Commission hospital accreditation board.
“We’re making good progress,” McDonald said. “The inspection went very well. There were many outstanding things that the organization was called out for. So, I’m quite excited about that. It shows that the leadership that Glenn and the team have provided is making a difference.”
In his speech to America’s largest veterans service organizations, McDonald defended the accomplishments of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in reducing wait times for medical care, streamlining the appeals process for disability claims and reducing homelessness among veterans of U.S. military actions.
VA reform has emerged as a hot topic at the American Legion event, with McDonald updating veterans on the state of the agency and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton telling she wants to reshape the VA, not privatize it.
McDonald, former CEO of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., replaced General Eric Shinseki as VA Secretary in July 2014. His “My VA” reform initiative was announced four months later.
“My VA is not my strategy. It’s yours,” McDonald told veterans at the Duke Energy Convention Center. “It’s not about me. It’s about all of you.”
Here are excerpts from his Cincinnati address:
In July, 96 percent of appointments were completed within 30 days of the veterans desired date, 85 percent were completed within 7 days and 22 percent completed the very same day.
You should know that the average wait time for primary care is around five days, six days for specialty care and two days for mental health. By December, you can expect same-day access for primary care and same-day access for mental health care. Nobody else offers that.
By the way, VA is the only health care system that publicly reports on wait times as a measure of access.
Ninety percent of the veterans we surveyed are satisfied or completely satisfied with the timeliness of their care. We won’t be satisfied until we hit 100 percent (but) we’re making important progress.
You rarely hear about that in the media. You’d never know that we lead in many fields of research that benefit all Americans, not only veterans: post-traumatic stress, brain injury, spinal cord injury, prosthetics and genetics. You’d never know that the American customer satisfaction index rate your National Cemetery Administration number one in customer service five years running. You’d never know J.D. Power rated (VA’s) mail-order pharmacy best in the country in customer satisfaction six years running, better than Wal-Mart, better than CVS, better than Walgreens.
Not too long ago, all you heard about was the backlog in disability claims, 6,011 claims, more than 125 days old. So, we added staff. We adjusted policies. And, importantly, we designed our new claims processing system. Today, that backlog is down almost 90 percent. The average time waiting for a completed claim is down 65 percent.
That’s the work of industrious employees and leaders. But you never read about that.