VA Hospital Spent $300K on Robots It Couldn’t Use

Facility spent half a million dollars on unused equipment

A robot / AP

A Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Wisconsin spent nearly half a million dollars on equipment it couldn’t use, including two robots purchased to move supplies throughout the facility.

Staffers at the VA Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin, purchased two robots for about $313,000 in September 2012 without determining whether they could move effectively through the hospital’s hallways, according to a Friday report released by the agency’s inspector general substantiating allegations of wasted funds at the medical center. The robots were not used for two years.

The watchdog found that the hospital wasted about $410,000 on the robots and a laser lead extractor, which was leased by the facility’s cardiology department for nearly $100,000 and not used for two and a half years.

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The audit provides the latest evidence of wasted funds at the federally run network of hospitals, which has been faulted for spending billions each year on contracts for goods and services without sufficient oversight.

The Madison VA hospital bought the robots four years ago to help distribute supplies throughout the facility and free up time for employees to focus on other priorities, according to the inspector general. However, the logistics department did not assess whether the robots would be able to navigate the hospital’s crowded hallways before purchasing them

"Problems began once the hallways included staff and patient traffic," the inspector general wrote. "For example, at the time of our site visit, the chief of logistics said that the robots would get stuck next to each other in the hallways and, in doing so, would block staff and patients from passing by."

"In an effort to mitigate the problems encountered with the robots, the facility employed different tactics to better utilize the robots," the inspector general continued. "For example, the logistics department sent employees out with the robots and tried to use them at times when hallway traffic was minimal.

These efforts were unsuccessful and the robots were taken off the hospital floor. They were eventually transferred to two other VA hospitals, where they were again not used, before being auctioned in March 2016 for $1,937, a tiny fraction of their original price tag.  

The same year that the hospital purchased the robots, the cardiology department leased a laser lead extractor, a tool used to remove pacemaker defibrillator leads from patients’ hearts, for about $100,000. Hospital workers were unable to use the device because of issues with operating room space and staffing. Still, the medical center continued to lease the device for two and a half years without using it.

When confronted by the inspector general, hospital managers could not produce documentation showing that the lease for the device was cost effective. Moreover, investigators turned up hospital records from 2013 that stated erroneously that "the device was in use and meeting their needs."

Because the hospital could not use the lead extractor, the VA paid for veterans to go to non-VA facilities to undergo lead extraction procedures. It is unclear how much the agency spent to send veterans elsewhere to receive the treatment.

The inspector general urged leaders at the Madison VA hospital to take steps to improve oversight of equipment acquisitions.

When contacted, the VA pointed out that regional leaders concurred with the recommendations and developed a plan to correct the problems exposed by the report.

The VA has often been criticized for mismanagement, insufficient oversight, and wasteful spending. The agency was recently hammered by members of Congress for spending $20 million on high-end art over the last decade. Veterans died waiting for care at some facilities during that period.