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Inquiry targets Bay Pines

A team of Veterans Affairs investigators from South Florida and Puerto Rico will converge at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center next week to investigate allegations of mismanagement.

Investigators also will hear complaints about a new computer software program at the hospital so beset with problems that it has forced nearly a dozen surgery delays.

Senior Bay Pines officials recently threatened to cancel surgeries for eight weeks but reconsidered after patients protested. The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa is scheduled to begin using the new program in March.

On Monday, VA investigators will begin looking into allegations by nearly two dozen doctors at Bay Pines who allege that the conduct of the chief of staff, Dr. Pramod K. Mohanty, is endangering the health of veterans.

The allegations about Mohanty _ reported by the St. Petersburg Times in December _ were listed last October in a two-page letter addressed to Smith Jenkins, the director at Bay Pines.

The letter cited eight complaints against Mohanty, alleging patient care was deteriorating despite repeated warnings to senior hospital officials.

Among other things, the doctors complained that Mohanty routinely failed to fill critical positions. As a result, some medical exams to detect pulmonary tumors in patients have not been analyzed for months. The doctors also charged that Mohanty harassed the medical staff.

"We believe that the actions of the (chief of staff) constitute gross mismanagement and constitute a risk to the health of the veterans we serve," said the letter, signed by "Members of the Medical Staff."

The doctors requested an independent inquiry.

Dr. Elwood J. Headley, director of the VA hospital network in Florida, south Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, ordered an investigation into the allegations last month.

Jenkins, the Bay Pines director, said Thursday he welcomed the investigation. "I think it kind of puts things out on the table. If, in fact, there are issues that need to be dealt with and haven't been, then we can . . . deal with those," he said.

"I think there's differences of opinions about what some of the issues might be," he said. "Hopefully, this will help clarify those things and say, "Hey! This is what we found, and we kind of suggest you maybe do this or do that.' "

Mohanty, a cardiologist, also serves as a professor of medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. His lawyer, Louis Kwall of Clearwater, said he has advised his client not to comment until the investigation is complete.

He said Mohanty has done nothing wrong.

"I'm a little disappointed that the people who are complaining haven't put their name forward," Kwall said. "I don't understand that way of doing business."

The investigation will be led by Dr. John Vara, the chief of staff at the Miami VA Medical Center.

He will be joined by a cardiologist from the Miami facility, as well as by the associate director for nursing from the San Juan, Puerto Rico, VA Medical Center and the associate director from the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center.

In an e-mail to colleagues dated Jan. 15, Tony Dobies, a Bay Pines official, said the investigation would focus primarily on the "allegations raised by several of our physicians about the quality of care at Bay Pines."

In a separate e-mail, Dobies said investigators "have asked for a great deal of information and documentation to review."

For three days, the investigators will interview nearly three dozen members of the Bay Pines staff for 30 minutes each.

The witnesses include Jenkins; Mohanty; Susan Angell, the associate director; Larry Christman, the Bay Pines spokesman; Patti DeFalco, a patient advocate; and other senior staff. Hospital staff described the mood as tense in anticipation of the investigators.

Headley was in Washington and unavailable for comment.

"It will still be a complete, objective review by completely qualified individuals who have the interests of the veterans at heart and the experience to do the review," spokeswoman June Geraghty said.

The investigators are expected to hear plenty of complaints about the new computer program.

Last October, the Department of Veterans Affairs selected Bay Pines as the test site for the new software program, which is scheduled to be phased in nationally within the next two years.

The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa _ the busiest VA hospital in the country _ had been scheduled to begin using the program next month. But because of the numerous software kinks, that date has been pushed back until March.

Steve Young, associate director at Haley, said Thursday he welcomed the delay.

"I am absolutely concerned," Young said, referring to the new software program. He said Haley had a backup plan in case the new system failed.

The secretary of veterans affairs, Anthony Principi, is tentatively scheduled to visit Bay Pines on Feb. 5 to review the new computer system.

While not specifically charged with reviewing the new software program at Bay Pines, Jenkins said investigators could look into it "if something comes up during their interviews involving surgical issues."

He said the computer system was outside their expertise and that a separate group, including the VA inspector general in Washington, already was reviewing the program, known as the Core Financial and Logistics System, or CoreFLS.

He said inspector general investigators had expressed concerns with the program, which has cost millions of dollars to develop.

The system tracks and controls finances, vendor payouts, and medical supply inventories.

Hospital officials say the program does not work. As a result, hospital supplies used in surgeries routinely are unavailable. Some vendors say they're not getting paid by Bay Pines because of the flawed computer system.

Jenkins acknowledged problems with the program since Bay Pines started using it last October.

"There were things right off the bat that really just caused substantial problems and really dug a hole very quickly," Jenkins said, "and we've been digging to get out of it for a long time."

_ Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarzasptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

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