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VA to restructure medical inspector's office

Jul. 8, 2014 - 04:50PM   |  
Sloan Gibson
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson speaking in Washington on June 18. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)
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The Veterans Affairs Department will reorganize its Office of the Medical Inspector following a scathing report that found officials downplayed whistleblower complaints and failed to take seriously charges of deficient patient care at VA hospitals and clinics.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Tuesday that he will appoint an interim director of the office from outside the current staff and has suspended the OMI hotline, directing calls and complaints about Veterans Health Administration facilities to the VA Inspector General’s office.

On June 23, the Office of Special Counsel issued a report saying VA OMI officials often accepted problems at VA facilities as “harmless errors” and did not thoroughly investigate allegations made by whistleblowers.

Following the release of that report, Gibson announced a review of OMI operations. He also accepted the resignation of Chief Medical Inspector Dr. John Pierce, who had served in that role since 2004.

The department, having completed the review, now is taking steps to implement the special counsel’s recommendations, Gibson said Tuesday.

“Given recent revelations by the Office of Special Counsel, it is clear that we need to restructure the Office of Medical Inspector to create a strong internal audit function which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront,” he said.

In mid-June, Gibson sent a message to all VA employees emphasizing the importance of protecting whistleblowers. He continues to meet with employees at VA medical centers nationwide to reiterate that message.

But while OSC officials praised this effort in a letter to the White House on June 23, they said VA has a long way to go before it adequately responds to those whistleblower reports.

The office has 50 pending disclosure cases alleging threats to VA patient health and safety, and another 60 cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers in the department.

In one case, VA medical inspectors acknowledged that 3,000 veterans at a Colorado VA facility could not reschedule canceled appointments — but found “no danger to public health and safety” as a result.

OSC investigators said they found similar problems in Alabama, where a VA pulmonologist improperly recorded information for 1,200 patients. VA medical inspectors said they could not substantiate whether those mistakes endangered patient health.

OSC officials said problems at VA facilities now make up about one-fourth of all the government cases they are investigating.

Pierce’s resignation is among nearly a dozen retirements or departures at VA in the past two months since a scandal erupted over reports of patient deaths, treatment delays and scheduling fraud at VA facilities across the country.

Last week, President Obama nominated former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as VA secretary. The nomination was sent to the Senate for consideration on Monday.

Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this report

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