Hearing probes conditions at Jackson VA center

Hearing probes conditions at Jackson VA center

During a Nov. 13 congressional hearing, two “whistleblowers” described in abject detail the culture of negligence that has compromised patient safety at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.

The hearing, held by the House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, examined a variety of serious problems at the Jackson VA center. Two key whistleblowers testified: Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, M.D., former physician of family medicine at the Jackson VAMC, and Dr. Charles Sherwood, M.D., former chief of ophthalmology at the facility. They had complained to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in Washington about conditions at the Jackson VAMC, including poor sterilization procedures, understaffing, misdiagnoses and poor management practices that placed patients at risk.

Unsupervised nurse practitioners (NPs) in Jackson VAMC’s primary-care unit, Hollenbeck said, outnumbered physicians by a ratio of three to one - sometimes four to one. “This same cavalier attitude and laxity by medical center and VISN (Veteran Integrated Service Network) leadership toward safe and proper medical care for the veterans empowered the NPs to prescribe narcotics, without physician supervision and without individual DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) registration numbers,” Hollenbeck said. This practice violates federal and individual state laws and VA handbook regulations.

“Veterans suffer needlessly, even when they do not die,” Hollenbeck said. “Think of a veteran whose fatigue is not just due to his chronic medical problems, but because of minute cardiac arrhythmia. When the subtlety of that diagnosis is missed by an NP, the veteran goes home and dies.”

Hollenbeck said the medical center’s director, Joe Battle, “is fond of reminding us that when you’re at the VA, you’re on the reservation. This translates into: ‘federal supremacy means we don’t have to follow the laws.’ It also means that medical and ethical boundaries are boldly breached. In this case, standing up to the ‘federal specialness’ claim, and ‘going off the reservation’ is a sign of sanity and professionalism. Duty calls us now, as it called the veterans.”

Fellow whistleblower Sherwood, who worked at the Jackson VAMC for 31 years before retiring, criticized VA’s performance-based model for senior executive service managers (implemented in the late 1990s). He told the committee that this compensation model, in a modified form, was extended to physicians by law in 2004 and implemented in 2006.

“The model has been manipulated to emphasize pay and job security at the expense of health and safety of patients,” Sherwood said. Noting that VA performance bonuses for executives have fallen under congressional scrutiny, he said the practice needs to be reformed “to protect patients by adjusting the pay system and preventing administrators from covering up patient injury.”

Erik Hearon, a certified public accountant from Mississippi and retired Air Force major general, testified to the subcommitee that he knew Sonny Montgomery. “His memory means a lot to me, and to the veterans that are supposed to get quality care (at the Jackson VAMC).”

“In May of 2011, there was a hearing held in this very room, where a lot of promises were made by the VA - and I’ve seen no evidence that they were fulfilled,” Hearon said. He then told the subcommittee about one patient at Jackson VAMC he had spoken with a week ago. He was “allowed only to see nurse practitioners, no physicians, for two years.” Earlier this year, he was informed that he had cancer, “had his entire stomach removed in September, and only then was he allowed to see a doctor, who refused to give him leave from work. He was a VA employee as well.” His employment was terminated, according to Hearon, “and it’s just been an absolute disaster.”

Charles Jenkins, president of Local 589, American Federation of Government Employees at the Jackson facility, represents more than 900 employees there. He told the subcommittee he was there to request an investigation into “a number of disturbing and preventable situations that occurred at the Jackson VA medical center. Over the years, management has consistently been inconsistent in responding to staffing problems.”

Jenkins said that, since 2012, Local 589 has submitted 12 written requests to Jackson VAMC Director Joe Battle, to investigate alleged violations by several members of his management team. “Unfortunately, leadership has been very reluctant to address alleged violations of rules and regulations by certain members of their own team.... Despite numerous requests, management waited more than one year to launch an investigation into improper hiring practices....”

Responding to a question from the subcommittee, Hollenbeck said one top challenges facing the Jackson facility is to “reorganize the primary care department to have more physicians.” Although recruiting new doctors “is a problem now, because the word is out about the hospital.”

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Another vietnam vet

November 22, 2013 - 10:01pm

I was initially in a civilian hospital and the Dr. there stated to me that I wouldn't lose my left leg. After the Sioux Falls SD found out I was at the non-va hospital they yanked me out and put me in their hospital. One evening a nurses aid changed the bandage on my ankle and infection shot out of the wound. An RN came and said yes it was an abscess and in the morning the wound nurse would look at it. That's all she did. "yes that's an abscess". Then they told me to push the abscess out through the debreed hole. After I had done that the abscess was pushed further down into the wound where the ankle became infected. This all happened over a period of 4 months. Well the Nurses and Dr's. tried to correct their mistake(s) by pumping me full of antibiotics which I became allergic to. Well to cut a long story short I lost the lower part of my left leg because of the staff being so lax with their medical attention to me. I don't have the money for an attorney and no attorney would take my case on a contingency fee basis so I have ended up with a stump at the mercy of the Sioux Falls SD VAMC.

Bonnie Evans

November 21, 2013 - 10:32pm

Absolutely disgusting and reckless towards our brave veterans. The word sure IS out about the hospital. Joe Battle has run it into the ground, and it's reputation along with it. He needs to be replaced, if not indicted.

Viet Vet

November 21, 2013 - 6:31pm

You might also look at Biloxi VAMC. They tried me out on Lantus versus Novelin N. I wound up in a civilian hospital with severe heart problems. jzEGL

D

November 18, 2013 - 6:23pm

Va suppose to help the vets who has served their country as proud soliders and then we they need help with medical issues or other things they drop the ball so I would say Jackson, MS VA medical center isn't worth a damm.

VAMD

November 15, 2013 - 9:35pm

We try to work for the Veterans by working around many staff who are incompetent and and actively sabotaging. That wastes a lot of our time. If you saw the behavior taking place in our department, you would conclude that many do not meet even minimal standards met by employees in private practice and should be fired. I have patients ask me why I am making copies myself and why phone calls are put directly through to me while I am trying to talk with the patients. I will keep doing it until I too am too exhausted because I love the Vets.

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