WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has played down instances of poor medical care by describing them as a "harmless error," even in the face of its own employees' concerns, according to a federal watchdog agency.
In a letter to President Barack Obama and Congress on Monday, the Office of Special Counsel substantiated a long list of problems at VA medical centers, from high levels of Legionella bacteria at a clinic in Grand Junction, Colo., to a psychiatric patient who waited eight years for his first evaluation after being admitted to a mental health facility in Brockton, Mass.
The OSC, which investigates whistle-blower complaints and protects federal employees from retaliation, is reviewing more than 50 complaints from VA workers who alleged that inappropriate practices harmed patient safety or health. The watchdog agency said it has referred 29 of those cases to the VA for further investigation.
In its letter, it detailed 10 cases nationwide in which the VA and its Office of the Medical Inspector acknowledged treatment issues but refused to acknowledge their impact on veterans.
"These cases are part of a troubling pattern of deficient patient care at VA facilities nationwide, and the continued resistance by the VA, and (Office of the Medical Inspector) in most cases, to recognize and address the impact on the health and safety of veterans," U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote.
Lerner said the harmless-error defense has "prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans." She added that "veterans' health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk" because of the issue.
The letter follows recent revelations about widespread falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays at VA medical centers across the country.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over after Eric Shinseki resigned last month, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the findings.