CHICAGO – U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said a doctor at a suburban Chicago veterans hospital told him Friday that "boxes and boxes" of echocardiograms went unread for weeks and in some cases not read until after the patients died, the latest allegations in a widening national scandal about shoddy medical care provided to the nation's veterans.
Appearing with a VA whistleblower who described widespread intimidation and harassment of employees at Edward Hines, Jr. VA hospital, Kirk stopped short of saying that any of the deaths were caused by the failure to read the tests.
Neither he nor the whistleblower, a VA social worker and union representative, Germaine Clarno, would identify the doctor who told Kirk about the echocardiogram. Clarno declined to provide any documentation because she said it would identify staffers who were already in fear of being punished or fired.
But at a news conference at Kirk's office just hours after President Barack Obama announced that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had stepped down, the Illinois Republican and Clarno outlined what Kirk called a "culture of corruption" putting the lives of veterans at risk.
"My concern is from what I heard from the whistleblower today is one physician... described virtual clinics where people were claimed to be seen and hadn't really been seen," said Kirk, a veteran himself.
Kirk did not say how long ago the echocardiograms in boxes had been conducted. Hines spokeswoman Charity Hardison said in an email that while an investigation revealed a backlog of echocardiograms in 2011, there had been no "substantial backlog" between January 2012 and April 2013 and "no current delays in reading echocardiograms." Hardison said Hines Director Joan Ricard requested the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs conduct an investigation once she learned about the allegations.
Clarno repeated previous allegations that data was manipulated at Hines to conceal the long waits simply to see a doctor. Veterans were sometimes brought in for group consultations or informational sessions but not actually examined by doctors or given any medical care.
Clarno told of intimidation tactics that ranged from that experienced by one employee who suddenly found her office without air conditioning, to doctors who were warned that if they came forward with their concerns they could be stripped of their medical licenses for violating patient confidentiality laws.
"When people come forward to say this is illegal, or hey, we can't do that.... they're treated with resentment, retaliation and harassment," she said.
Clarno said the intimidation took other forms as well, including publicizing the names within Hines of any employee who was going to talk to VA officials conducting an investigation for the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"How is that not intimidation?" she asked.
Kirk, who led a successful effort to pressure the inspector general to make sure Hines was part of a nationwide investigation, suggested that based on what he had heard Friday, the U.S. Justice Department should get involved.
"If you're not even going to look at the test then you can't advise the patient of what should be done to improve their chance of survival," he said. Kirk said an internal document he saw cited delay in care in connection with the deaths of five people whose families received approximately $2 million in payouts from the VA.
Hardison earlier this week told The Associated Press that an internal investigation found delays in care had not been responsible for the deaths, but they were "related to active treatment or diagnostic issues."
Kirk said again that Hines Director Ricard should step down. Ricard could not be reached for comment.