By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org
Cartoon by Mike Shelton
Veterans at the Shreveport, La., Veterans Administration hospital have been going without toothbrushes, toothpaste, pajamas, sheets and blankets while department officials spend money on new Canadian-made furniture, televisions to run public service announcements and solar panels, a Watchdog investigation has revealed.
Sources inside the hospital told Watchdog.org that patients also have had to contend with substandard care, as many nurses spend less time on work than on cell phones, iPods or accessing personal data on hospital computers.
“It shouldn’t be like this. These are our veterans,” one employee said. “When I saw those solar panels out there and they waste money on things like new TVs that just play (public service) announcements, it really made me angry.”
According to the VA, the department spent $74,412 on 24 flat screen TVs for “patient/employee information” — one 50 inches wide and the others 42 inches. The furniture cost $134,082 and the solar project was approximately $3 million.
Shreveport’s Overton Brooks VA Medical Center was built in 1950 and its linens look like they’ve been around just as long. Sheets and blankets often have holes or are threadbare. Pajamas are missing buttons or snaps and are ripped. But patients who get even these items are the lucky ones.
By the weekend, the hospital runs out while waiting for its supply of laundry to arrive from 125 miles away, where it was cleaned at another VA hospital in Pineville, La.
The VA said it doesn’t contract with a local vendor because the employees in Pineville are veterans, but it did not address why it would spend $3 million on solar panels to help the environment yet condone burning millions of gallons of gasoline.
VA PRIORITY: $74,412 was spent on TV’s for messages like these, while vets go without pajamas or sheets.
“The patients don’t complain, they are wonderful,” the employee said regarding the lack of resources. “They are so appreciative of the care. That’s the least of their problems, these ratty, torn pajamas.”
The VA said in a statement that laundry is inspected before it is delivered. To this, the employee laughed in amazement.
“I can’t tell you how many times a blanket will be opened and there will still be the electrode pads stuck to it from the last patient,” he said. “And the pajamas still have tape on them from the last person’s IV.”
The employee asked not to be identified because he feared repercussions. However, a second employee who quit her job over a climate of substandard care did not wish to hide her identity.
Kathy Scott, a former nurse at the facility, echoed the first employee’s complaints. She recalled, “I know there were times when we didn’t have any sheets and we would put a pillowcase over the patient.”
The scarcity of supplies drives nurses to hoard. Toiletries are kept in a locked cabinet on another floor, accessible by an employee who works the day shift. Scott worked nights, so she purchased items with her own money and kept them in her own locker for her patients.
The VA “does not furnish those. Volunteers come through and drop off toothbrushes, deodorant, mouthwash and combs,” the first employee said. “We run out, so all we have available are pre-moistened sponges for oral care.”
Overton Brooks has “volunteers who pass out comfort-item kits daily to newly admitted veterans,” and after hours a supervisor can unlock the cabinet, the VA noted. The first employee disputed this.
“This is the first I’ve heard of that,” the employee said. “Volunteers only come by a certain number of days to stock the drawer with toothbrushes,” the employee said. “When it runs out, it’s out. Nurses call around to other floors looking for some but it’s the same situation with everyone else.”
The employee said it’s also common knowledge that several nurses and aides will bring their own toiletries for patients.
Overton Brooks, a 10-story, 111 hospital-bed facility, serves about 37,000 veterans each year and another 462,000 outpatients.
Scott said she left her job in December 2012, afraid that “something bad would eventually happen to one of the patients and I could be implicated” just by merely working the same shift as some of her inattentive colleagues.
“Nurse assistants were allowed to sit around and disappear and talk on the phone or listen to headphones,” she said. “Supervisors never supervised and didn’t know what was going on on the floor and didn’t want to hear about it. If I wanted something done, I had to do it myself.
“I didn’t want to lose my license I’ve had all these years,” Scott said. “If you can’t trust people you work with, you are in a bad situation.”
She recalled some nurses sitting at a computer doing personal business for an entire eight-hour shift while aides refused to bathe patients.
Scott said aides complained that patients often waited hours to be bathed. She said one aide complained that it was useless to keep patients clean early in a shift. The aide told her, “If I have to do it now, I will just have to do it again before the end of my shift.”
A third employee confirmed the lack of nursing oversight. She recalled a patient who was left unattended in a room for nearly 24 hours, wishing to take a shower but unable to make the trek alone to the hallway where the facilities were located.
Instead, a nurse merely dropped towels onto his in-room sink, and told the patient to wash himself.
“Nobody paid attention to him,” the third employee said. “Nurses just shrugged their shoulders.”
The VA health care system has come under fire as whistleblowers have detailed secret lists of veterans waiting — and dying — to receive care. The VA Office of Inspector General (VA OIG) has had its hands full looking into claims of lax supervision and falsified records to cover up lengthy waits at many of the nation’s 1,700 facilities.
The inspector general included Overton Brooks on a list of 110 hospitals requiring investigation.
Fallout over the scandal cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job, while his replacement, Bob McDonald, has vowed to right the numerous wrongs. McDonald did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the issues at Overton Brooks.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.,chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told Watchdog.org: “These are disturbing allegations that, if true, constitute a serious disregard for the well-being of patients and an organizational climate that puts employees — rather than veterans — first.”
“VA continues to assert that once a veteran has access to care it is excellent,” Miller said. “I want to believe that. But these allegations do not represent quality care, and I expect VA leadership to not only investigate but ismmediately correct and hold accountable anyone who does not embrace a culture of service toward veterans.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking member on the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, had no comment. However, his spokesperson Rachael Hicks said: “As this is the first Sen. Burr’s office has heard of these allegations, we have reached out to the VA Inspector General to look into it.”
A report was issued on March 31 by the VA OIG outlining several deficiencies at Overton Brooks encountered during a routine audit, but nothing unearthed in Watchdog.org’s investigation was discussed. VA OIG spokesperson Cathy Gromek said the agency’s focus was determined before they arrived. She was unaware of the employees’ complaints and said anyone can anonymously call the OIG hotline at 800-488-8244.
“If they have concerns about the quality of care for the veterans, of course we want to hear about them,” Gromek said.
Standard of care aside, the question remains whether hard-earned tax dollars should be funding new furniture, televisions and solar panels at the expense of veteran care, the employees said.
“They put those flat-screen TVs all over the hospital at every elevator in the east wing and we have 10 floors,” one employee said. “All it has is the weather and then it has these uplifting sayings by Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou and advice by Michelle Obama. Like ‘Be safe,’ ‘Move,’ ‘Eat Less’ and ‘Exercise.’”
None of the televisions were used to upgrade the rooms of patients, which have 24-inch televisions. Rather, their purpose is to serve as an electronic bulletin board that “offers an easy way to spread information to a wide audience in a short amount of time. It also provides a way to inform … (about) Medical Center activities, future events and specific health-related topics,” according to a VA statement.
The furniture purchases include new seating arrangements for lobby areas outside the elevators and upgrades to existing chairs in patient rooms. The tags say “Made in Canada,” the employee said.
“I felt like it was a waste of money,” he said. “A lot of our furniture was still in great condition.”
The VA confirmed that some of the furniture was made in Canada, but defended its purchase by saying the manufacturer was an American company and the contract went to a minority, female, disabled veteran-owned vendor. Part of the purchase was used to furnish a new wing.
As for the solar panels, the price tag was $9.25 million for Overton Brooks and two other VA hospitals. This is part of a nationwide solar push to make federal buildings more environmentally friendly, as required by a 2009 presidential order.
The solar contract was signed in 2010, construction was completed in June and the panels were hooked up and operational on Aug. 22. It will save $119,000 a year on electricity, the VA said. However, solar systems still require maintenance and pricey parts can start failing after five years, experts say.
In response to allegations regarding lack of care, the VA said in a statement: “Each veteran has an assigned registered nurse to ensure he/she receives appropriate and timely care. In addition, nursing staff conduct veteran care rounds on all inpatient units at designated intervals to ensure needed care is provided.”
U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., whose district includes Shreveport, said, “The care of our veterans is crucial and has been under an intense microscope since reports of veterans dying while waiting for care.”
Fleming said he has “engaged with” the hospital’s interim director about “concerns” at Overton Brooks.
“It is the sad reality that patients are often the ones who fare the worst under government-run health care, as is the case with the VA system,” Fleming said.