WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A veterans medical center in Wichita left its laboratories unstaffed for entire shifts and sometimes resorted to “begging, borrowing and manipulation” just to obtain vital surgical equipment, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran alleges in a letter to the top official at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Moran, R-Kansas, said the problems at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center put veterans’ lives at risk and forced employees to work under conditions of fear and retribution. In his letter sent last week to acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson, Moran cited whistleblower complaints and 177 pages of internal documents, including meeting minutes, budgets and equipment request lists.
The VA medical center Wichita confirmed it had received the letter a day earlier but said Wednesday it was still reviewing it.
During a speech Tuesday to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis, Gibson vowed to crack down on whistleblower retaliation, saying the most important source of information, ideas for innovation and continuous improvement are employees.
Moran said that in order to meet a fiscal goal, the facility suspended contracts with large businesses — a move that forced VA staff to resort to “begging, borrowing and manipulation” to treat veterans. The contract suspensions prevented the facility from making any acquisition over the $3,000 limit on a government purchase card, limiting its ability to obtain such things as surgical equipment and heart valve replacement devices, according to the letter.
Since August 2012, Moran said the VA staff has been forced to work around the policy by borrowing equipment from pharmaceutical companies and local hospitals.
Moran also decried a bonus incentive program that has led to funding cuts to critical services. Under it, a facility director can increase his own bonus by minimizing the cost per case, even if that means cutting funds intended for patient care. Under the guise of promoting efficient spending, the director reprioritized allocations leading to “considerable consequences” at the Wichita VA which require immediate attention, he said.
A hiring freeze also left nearly 30 positions — including laboratory staff, nurses and pharmacists — unfilled as of December at the Wichita facility, despite internal emails indicating these were “critical staffing vacancies.” No staff was available in November to staff the third shift in the laboratory, putting veterans at “great risk” of not receiving needed care in timely and emergency situations.
“Once again, I fail to comprehend the rationale behind stalling the hire of critical staff who contribute to life-saving services,” Moran wrote.
Moran also criticized the Wichita VA facility for its handling of a $2.2 million grant it received this year to fill 23 positions in its home-based care program in Liberal and Dodge City for rural veterans. Some of the positions were posted, but then retracted, he said.
He also cited what he called “avoidable and reckless demands” on VA employees, such as requiring one practitioner to travel several days a week from Parsons to Salina, a six-hour drive roundtrip, because of the unfilled positions. Another employee was forced to travel several days a week from Liberal to Salina, an eight-hour roundtrip.
He expressed concern about the future of another program that offers rural veterans the opportunity to access health care services from community providers.
Moran said he believed the problems stem from “failed leadership and mismanagement” at the headquarters level.
“The VA’s culture of indifference — a disregard for priorities that should be focused on serving veterans — leads to facilities with a toxic work environment where it is impossible to provide veterans the quality care they deserve,” he wrote.