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Latest charges trouble VA chief

The head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expressed concern Tuesday about new allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care at Bay Pines VA Medical Center.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said he planned to visit the hospital but did not say when.

Bay Pines, one of the nation's busiest VA hospitals, was the target of multiple federal inquiries into similar charges of mismanagement in 2004.

The VA's inspector general announced two weeks ago that it would look into the latest allegations, which were contained in an anonymous complaint.

"When we get a letter from a veteran that's complimenting a doctor or a nurse for the compassion and the competence, it makes me feel real good," Nicholson told the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times.

"When we get these anonymous letters that have particularity in them," he said, "it really does concern me."

The anonymous complaint, obtained by the Times, charged that the "corruption and incompetence that exists in the management of the VA Medical Center in Bay Pines continues and has actually gotten worse."

Bay Pines officials said the letter is wrong.

During Tuesday's visit to the Tampa Bay area, Nicholson did not visit Bay Pines but said he would return. He also voiced support for hospital management.

Nicholson visited the polytrauma unit at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.

At an afternoon news conference, Nicholson praised hospital staff for what he characterized as "pioneer" work in treating multiple injuries.

He also said every patient he spoke with marveled at the level of care at Haley.

"Some of the young kids, they might complain a little bit about the food, the toilet paper," Nicholson said, "but the care, it was just unanimous in their adulation and their gratitude."

At Haley and at the editorial board meeting, Nicholson was joined by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.

Young said he had not commented on the new Bay Pines investigation because it was sparked by an anonymous complaint.

He said the investigations in 2004 were prompted by a flawed trial computer system at the hospital. He also said veterans do not like it when Bay Pines is cast in a negative light.

"If you want to get a fight, you tell them that Bay Pines is a terrible place to go for their medical care . . . because the veteran believes in Bay Pines," Young said. "They think that this is the greatest medical facility anywhere in the world."

Nicholson also addressed an oft-cited complaint about the way management runs VA hospitals.

At Bay Pines, some doctors complain that management does not listen and that if they speak out, they endanger their careers.

Nicholson said it is critical to provide "a valve" for staff to air complaints but also pointed out that like any large organization, politics come into play.

He said doctors with specialties "don't like intrusion from management, and sometimes you'll have people who act out . . .

"So," Nicholson said, "we have to figure out a way to lead that, to manage that in a way to keep them moving forward with the whole organization - and those are challenges."

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