Another VA scandal revealed: USA Today uncovers years of hidden medical mistakes, staff misconduct

Secret lists to hide long wait times for care are just the tip of the iceberg of problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A new report reveals another scandal involving hundreds of instances in which the agency covered up employee mistakes and withheld information from patients about medical errors.

USA Today’s explosive report finds that for years the VA has signed secret settlement deals with clinicians and healthcare workers at more than 100 facilities in 42 states to cover up serious mistakes, including dangerous medical errors, and uncovered a history of the VA’s failure to report disciplined providers to state licensing boards or to the National Practitioner Data Bank.

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The newspaper’s investigation found 126 cases in which the workers’ mistakes were so serious that the VA decided to fire them. However, in nearly three-quarters of settlements, the agency took out negative records from the fired employees' personnel files and gave them references to prospective employers. The report reveals incidents of botched surgeries, a patient kept bound in leather restraints for hours and a hospital director accused of harassing female employees. Failure to report the clinicians has allowed the troubled providers to treat patients in other states and facilities.

“It's unacceptable,” Michael Carome, M.D., director of Public Citizen's health research group in the District of Columbia, told USA Today. “What they are saying is, 'We don't want you to work for us, but we'll help you get a job elsewhere.' That's outrageous.”

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The incidents uncovered in the report date back to 2014 and 2015, and current leaders would not discuss with the newspaper how previous directors handled cases of misconduct. However, VA Secretary David Shulkin told the publication that top VA officials in D.C. must now approve settlement deals of more than $5,000, and the agency would review its patient safety procedures and policies of reporting medical professionals to the national data bank.

In an emailed statement to FierceHealthcare, Concerned Veterans for America said that the VA’s main priority is providing care to veterans and they must hold bad employees accountable for their actions. Fortunately, CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell said, it’s easier for the VA to remove problem employees because of the bipartisan VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which President Donald Trump signed into law in June. The bill reduces the time it takes to fire bad employees at the VA and gives Shulkin the power to recoup bonuses awarded to employees who have engaged in misconduct.