VA rules let in trouble
Doctors with malpractice claims in their past still might be hired to care for veterans.
Neurosurgeon John Henry Schneider racked up more than a dozen malpractice claims and settlements in two states, including cases alleging he made surgical mistakes that left patients maimed, paralyzed or dead.
He was accused of costing one patient bladder and bowel control after placing spinal screws incorrectly; he allegedly left another paralyzed from the waist down after placing a device improperly in his spinal canal. The state of Wyoming revoked his medical license after another surgical patient died.
Schneider then applied for a job earlier this year at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. He was forthright in his application about the license revocation and other malpractice troubles. But the VA hired him anyway. He started work in April at a hospital that serves 184,000 veterans in 50 counties in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.
Some of his patients suffered complications.
Schneider performed four brain surgeries in a span of four weeks on one 65-year-old veteran who died in August, according to interviews with Schneider and family members. He has performed three spine surgeries on a 77-year-old Army veteran since July — the last two to try and clean up a lumbar infection from the first, the patient said.
Schneider’s hiring is not an isolated case.
A VA hospital in Oklahoma knowingly hired a psychiatrist previously sanctioned for sexual misconduct who went on to sleep with a VA patient, according to internal documents. A Louisiana VA clinic hired a psychologist with felony convictions.
As a result of USA TODAY’s investigation of Schneider, VA officials determined his hiring — and potentially that of an unknown number of other doctors — was illegal. Federal law bars the agency from hiring physicians whose license has been revoked by a state board, even if they still hold an active license in another state.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said agency officials provided hospital officials in Iowa City with “incorrect guidance” green-lighting Schneider’s hire. The VA moved to fire Schneider on Wednesday. He resigned instead.
Cashour also said the VA would look into whether other doctors had been improperly hired.
“We will take the same prompt removal action with any other improper hires we discover,” he said.
A USA TODAY investigation in October revealed how the VA has for years concealed shoddy care and mistakes by medical workers when they leave the agency.
The results of the investigation of Schneider and other VA practitioners with problem pasts reveal potentially dangerous shortfalls when they join the agency as well.
Cashour said the agency also is initiating an “independent, third-party clinical review” of the care Schneider provided in Iowa City that was relayed to USA TODAY by patients or family members.
In an interview, Schneider blamed poor outcomes for patients on other providers involved in their treatment or on unfortunate complications not caused by his care.
Schneider said his insurance company decided to settle some of his prior cases regardless of their merit, and he filed an appeal of the Wyoming revocation, a case that’s still pending.
The case that captured the attention of Wyoming Board of Medicine officials was Russell Monaco, a father of two who went under Schneider’s knife in 2011 for a procedure to decrease pressure on nerves in his lower back, according to a wrongful death suit filed by his wife, Kathy.
After the operation, he was prescribed a litany of narcotics that can depress breathing, including fentanyl, oxycodone, valium, and Demerol.
He went home and took the medications as prescribed, the lawsuit says, but his family found him dead the next morning. The coroner found the cause of death was “mixed drug overdose.”
“I tried to wake him up and yelled and the girls came down screaming,” his wife, Kathy Monaco, told USA TODAY. “It was horrible, I mean, I live that day over every day.”
The VA allowed its medical center in Iowa City, Iowa, to hire a physician with a history of malpractice claims.