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Inquiry opens into Haley VA hospital

James A. Haley VA Medical Center is under investigation over charges of poor patient care and a questionable contract with the University of South Florida.

The investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs was confirmed Thursday by VA spokesman Scott Hogenson in Washington.

The Haley inquiry comes only two weeks after the inspector general began looking into allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Pinellas County.

Haley is the nation's busiest VA hospital. Its polytrauma unit is one of only four in the VA system that specializes in treatment of a new generation of combat injuries caused by improvised explosive devices, commonly seen in Iraq.

The Haley allegations were contained in an anonymous four-page letter received in the mail last week by the St. Petersburg Times. The newspaper asked VA Deputy Inspector General Jon Wooditch about the letter, and provided him a copy at his request.

In recent days, Wooditch has not responded to several messages seeking comments, but the investigation may have been prompted by the level of specificity in the single-spaced complaint. VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said Tuesday that he becomes concerned "when we get these anonymous letters that have particularity in them."

The Haley letter includes names of staffers and specific dates of surgeries that allegedly endangered patients. A chief complaint is that patients were placed under anesthesia in the operating room while surgeons tended to personal matters.

"There is a culture of surgeon superiority at James A. Haley, and it is led by the Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery," the letter begins.

"Surgeons do whatever they want, and there are no consequences. They routinely show up late for surgeries, and cancel cases and clinics to go fishing and the like."

Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo did not respond to a message seeking comments Thursday. Chief of Surgery Dr. Reginald Peniston was out of town.

According to the letter, a review of a contract that required USF staffers to perform heart surgeries at Haley amounted to fraud because the VA received no services from USF. The contract was worth more than $300,000, the complaint said.

"No one from USF comes over, does any kind of work to justify such a contract."

In an interview Thursday, USF Health spokeswoman Anne Delotto Baier challenged the allegations. She said Dr. Dimitri Novitzky, professor of surgery at USF, had conducted as many as 90 surgeries a year at Haley.

Delotto Baier said the contract expired in July but said she was not sure why. "All I can tell you, Dr. Novitzky was paid for services rendered," she said.

The letter cited several alleged examples in which patients were put under anesthesia in the operating room with no surgeon present.

In one case, on Aug. 30, 2001, a vascular surgeon left Haley after his patient had been put under, the letter said. The surgeon attended a conference across the street at USF. He returned to the hospital more than an hour later.

"According to surgical statistics at this facility," the letter said, "the most common cause of surgical delay is due to the attending surgeon not present."

The complaint also said surgeries routinely are put off at the request of the chief of surgery because there is not enough operating room time.

According to the letter, medical conferences weren't the only reasons surgeons stayed away.

On Nov. 10, two surgeons took sick days, canceled clinics and went fishing.

When the chief of surgery discovered what they had done, he told them to take administrative leave instead to avoid getting into trouble, the letter said.

In addition, the letter accused a section chief of having sexual relationships with several of his subordinates, and of keeping inappropriate pictures in his office.

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

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