Veterans at the Shreveport, Louisiana Veterans Administration hospital 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, an investigative report by the independent investigative organization Watchdog.org revealed.
Patients at the Shreveport hospital have been going without toothbrushes, toothpaste, pajamas, sheets, and blankets while department officials spend money on flat-screen TVs and solar panels, sources inside the hospital told Watchdog.org.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), 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 immediately correct and hold accountable anyone who does not embrace a culture of service toward veterans.”
Basic Necessities Lacking
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, Louisiana. The VA said it doesn’t contract with a local vendor because the employees in Pineville are veterans.
“The patients don’t complain; they are wonderful,” said one employee who asked not to be identified because he feared repercussions. “They are so appreciative of the care. That’s the least of their problems, these ratty, torn pajamas.”
The VA said in a statement laundry is inspected before it is delivered. Told 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.”
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.”
Nurses, Volunteers Fill Gaps
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,” he said. “Volunteers only come by a certain number of days to stock the drawer with toothbrushes. 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 several nurses and aides will bring their own toiletries for patients.
Staff Members Ignore Patients
Overton Brooks, a 10-story, 111 hospital-bed facility, serves approximately 37,000 veterans each year and another 462,000 outpatients.
Scott said she left her job in December 2012, afraid “something bad would eventually happen to one of the patients and I could be implicated.”
“Nurse assistants were allowed to sit around and disappear and talk on the phone or listen to headphones,” Scott 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.”
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 patients often waited hours to be bathed. She said one aide complained 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, who also requested anonymity, 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,” she said. “Nurses just shrugged their shoulders.”
Investigations and Outrage
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 falsification of 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, and his replacement, Bob McDonald, has vowed to right the numerous wrongs. McDonald did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the problems at Overton Brooks.
A report issued on March 31 by the VA OIG outlined several deficiencies at Overton Brooks, but nothing unearthed in Watchdog.org’s investigation was discussed. VA OIG spokesperson Cathy Gromek said the agency’s focus was determined before inspectors arrived. She said she was unaware of the employees’ complaints and anyone can anonymously call the OIG hotline to report concerns.
“If they have concerns about the quality of care for the veterans, of course we want to hear about them,” Gromek said.
Flat-Screen TVs, Solar Panels
Employees questioned whether hard-earned tax dollars should be funding televisions and solar panels at the expense of veteran care.
“They put those flat-screen TVs all over the hospital at every elevator in the east wing, and we have 10 floors,” the first 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.'”
The flat-screen TVs “[offer] 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 price tag for the solar panels was $9.25 million for Overton Brooks and two other VA hospitals, part of a nationwide push to make federal buildings more environmentally friendly, as required by a 2009 presidential order.
“It shouldn’t be like this. These are our veterans,” the first 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—and the solar project cost approximately $3 million.
American Legion Steps Up
Following the initial revelations by Watchdog.org about the Shreveport hospital, the American Legion announced it would send $5,000 worth of emergency supplies.
“If more is needed, more will be provided,” the Legion’s national commander, Michael D. Helm, said in a statement. “While the American Legion family is more than happy to provide this assistance, it is very disturbing that such help is needed.”
“We are outraged,” said William Detweiler, past national commander of the American Legion. “This is something the VA should be providing, but if they aren’t, we are prepared to come in and provide the basic essentials. According to your story, these veterans have been denied.”
VA Denies Allegations
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.
Tori Richards ([email protected]) writes for Watchdog.org, where an earlier version of this story originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.