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Tampa VA worker took 'gratuities,' gave referrals, report finds

TAMPA — A James A. Haley VA Medical Center employee referred 183 of the facility's patients to a private radiology company that gave him gifts valued at $1,372, a federal investigation has found.

The allegation in a Feb. 3 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general is heavily redacted, with the name of the employee and radiology company blotted out along with other details.

The agency said it would not release the employee's name, in part, to protect that person's privacy.

The report also said the employee had an undisclosed business relationship with the company, misused VA time and resources to develop a smart-phone application for personal gain, mishandled patient records and falsified records reflecting time worked.

The report concluded the employee violated federal conflict of interest regulations.

The gratuities accepted were hockey tickets and free promotional materials apparently promoting a radiology business the Haley employee had incorporated, the report said.

The inspector general referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to file criminal charges "in favor of available administrative remedies," the report said.

The employee will be required to pay back to the company the value of those gratuities. But Haley officials declined to say what other disciplinary measures they would impose, if any. Similarly unclear is how highly the employee ranks in the Tampa hospital's administrative or medical hierarchy.

The inspector general's office said in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday that it was allowed to withhold portions of records that "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Mary Kay Hollingsworth, a VA spokeswoman based in Florida, said the report also was redacted because records compiled for law enforcement purposes are exempt from public disclosure.

Hollingsworth said the case was referred to the VA inspector general after an anonymous complaint.

The unidentified radiology company is a facility that accepts Haley patients in instances when the hospital is too busy or does not offer a particular service. The VA pays the company for providing the medical services.

The employee told investigators that he referred patients to the company "for their state-of-the-art radiology equipment" and for services Haley could not provide. The employee said more patients were referred to this company than any other radiology outfit because it was close to Haley and provided patient transportation, the report said.

The report does not address the question of whether the referrals were appropriate or if Haley could have provided the radiology services. It also does not note the cost of the referrals to the VA.

The patient referrals occurred during a two-year period ending in early 2011, the report said.

The referrals came at a time when budget documents show that Haley's leaders cut back the "fee basis" program as the hospital coped with a large budget shortfall. The fee basis program provides non-VA care to veterans, and some patients have complained about the difficulty getting such referrals.

The employee had received VA ethics training, the inspector general said. The employee told investigators he or she would "never slack on that."

Reach William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Tampa VA worker took 'gratuities,' gave referrals, report finds 02/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 11:20pm]
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