Medical workers at an Illinois VA hospital say two prominent lawmakers were aware that veterans were at risk due to rampant medical neglect at the facility, but neglected to seriously address the problems despite multiple requests.
The employees at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital said they were forced to go to the media with evidence of hospital negligence after they had a string of fruitless meetings with Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) in 2013 and 2014.
Officials at the Hines VA reportedly kept sick patients waiting months for appointments and maintained yearlong backlogs of unread heart test evaluations, according to Dr. Lisa Nee and Germaine Clarno, two former employees.
The hospital is now at the center of a national scandal over patient mistreatment at the VA, which has prompted a string of internal investigations and an ongoing Senate probe led by Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.). The hospital’s head resigned last year amid a national outcry.
However, the whistleblowers said the lack of response from Duckworth and Durbin was troubling and raises questions about whether political pressure in Illinois has delayed an impartial investigation into the practices at Hines VA.
Clarno, a Democrat and union leader, said she met with Duckworth three times between 2013 and 2014 to report on "secret waiting lists" at the hospital, which hid the fact that patients were going months before seeing a doctor after calling to schedule an appointment.
Nee also provided evidence that heart tests were going unread for months or years. The doctor said that when she began working at the Hines facility she was given boxes full of year-old cardiology tests that had never been examined. After she started reviewing them, she realized many of the patients had already died from heart conditions.
"Looking back, foolishly, I went to my own [Democratic] party thinking that they would do something. It’s not an easy thing for me to say, but it’s reality," said Clarno, a social worker who has worked at the Hines VA for six years and is also the president of AFGE Local 781.
Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and double-amputee, served as the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs before she was elected to Congress in 2012. She is currently running for the Senate seat held by Kirk and has highlighted her work with veterans during the campaign.
According to Clarno and Nee, Duckworth said they would not be able to change the practices because that is "just how it is" at VA hospitals.
"[Duckworth told us,] ‘I know all about how the VA runs, that’s just how it is. You’re never going to change anything there,’" said Nee, who worked as a cardiologist at Hines from 2011 to 2013.
Nee said Duckworth was "quite dismissive, she never followed up with me, and I never tried to reach out to her again."
Duckworth did not respond to a request for comment.
The whistleblowers also said Durbin took no visible action and never met with them directly—sending aides to the meetings instead—despite numerous requests.
"I’m a Democrat and it's very disturbing for me and heartbreaking that I went to my own party and they did not help me to help veterans," said Clarno.
Durbin’s office said the notion that he has been unresponsive to the issue is "simply not true" and that Durbin helped prompt the VA inspector general to launch an investigation into the claims in 2013.
The Durbin spokesperson said that after aides met with the whistleblowers in February 2013, Durbin "shared information with the Department of Veterans Affairs which spurred the VA [Office of Inspector General] to launch an investigation into the whistleblowers’ allegations."
Nee and Clarno have criticized that investigation, saying the cardiologist was never interviewed and the files of evidence she compiled were never reviewed during the course of the probe.
The VA Office of the Medical Inspector opened another investigation after the Office of Special Counsel found the initial investigation insufficient.
Durbin’s office said he has been following the status of the investigations. Last week, Durbin and Duckworth sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs asking for a copy of the medical inspector’s report "and any further plans of corrective action."
"The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has a long history of providing quality care for our nation’s veterans and we appreciate the work of you and your staff in upholding accountability and transparency related to that care," wrote Durbin and Duckworth. "We urge you to continue to ensure the appropriate implementation of recommendations for the Hines VA hospital."
Durbin’s office also noted that a staffer met with Nee as recently as two weeks ago regarding this issue. However, Nee said Durbin has yet to meet with them directly, and has instead sent aides who seem unaware of the severity of the problems.
"If you have constituents who have gone to everyone, and begged you to meet with them over these heinous acts … it’s appalling, it’s insulting, it’s condescending," said Nee.