Ohio’s senators expressed outrage and demanded swift action after a recent investigation exposed misconduct, disorder, and inadequate care at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs hospital in Cincinnati.
Sen. Rob Portman (R), who is running for reelection in 2016, labeled the allegations "very troubling" Wednesday and called for the VA inspector general and Congress to move quickly and "get to the bottom" of the reports, according to local WCPO. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said later that action needs to be taken by the committee, Congress, and the VA to make sure that problems are fixed.
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The VA said that it had opened a probe into the VA Medical Center in Cincinnati after a WCPO-Scripps News Washington Bureau investigation citing 34 current and former hospital staffers pointed to misconduct at the facility.
Specifically, investigators found that two VA administrators were responsible for cuts in medical services for veterans, reductions in staffing, and the presence of dirty surgical equipment in hospital rooms. One of the administrators, acting chief of staff Dr. Barbara Temeck, allegedly informed operating staff that they were "too picky" for objecting to surgical equipment soiled with blood and bone fragments.
Temeck is also accused of illegally prescribing medication to the wife of the other administrator, regional director Jack Hetrick, and receiving pay for work she has not been regularly performing.
Whistleblowers said that they had expressed concerns for nearly a year, including reaching out to VA Secretary Robert McDonald and representatives in Congress, though little had been done to fix the issues.
"If the allegations are accurate in terms of some of the activity in Cincinnati, it goes to ethical issues and moral issues as to some of the procedures and practices," Portman said. "We need to get to the bottom of it. We need to find out if those allegations are accurate or not, and the situation needs to be corrected immediately."
The VA’s network of medical facilities has come under increased scrutiny since the 2014 fake waitlist scandal, which prompted the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Despite Congress passing and President Obama signing legislation to boost veterans’ care, subsequent inspector general reports have pointed to poor care and mismanagement at VA hospitals nationwide.
Concerned Veterans for America, a veterans group that has long pushed for restructuring at the VA, said that the reports out of Cincinnati exemplify "everything that is wrong with the current management and culture" of the government agency.
"Denial of care, lack of accountability and incompetent and unethical leaders are plaguing the department, and veterans are the ones paying the price," the group said in a statement. "We hope Secretary McDonald will do everything possible to improve the delivery of health care to Cincinnati’s veterans, as well as hold Jack Hetrick and Barbara Temeck accountable for their inexcusable lack of integrity."
Veterans health care has become an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Democrat Hillary Clinton was criticized last October for downplaying VA issues and blaming Republicans for fueling poor coverage of the agency. Clinton’s campaign later walked back her remarks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), Clinton’s challenger for the nomination, has touted his experience chairing the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs throughout his campaign. When reports first surfaced in 2014 that veterans had died waiting for care because VA staffers were using secret waitlists to conceal long waits, then-chairman Sanders defended the VA and indicated that the scandal was fueled by a partisan effort to undermine the agency.