Wilkie anx­ious for an­swers about sus­pi­cious deaths at VA hos­pi­tal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

NASHVILLE, TENN. | An in­ves­ti­ga­tion into 11 sus­pi­cious deaths at a West Vir­ginia VA fa­cil­ity has dragged on too long and pro­duced too lit­tle in the way of an­swers for fed­eral of­fi­cials and the fam­i­lies af­fected, Veter­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Robert Wilkie said.

In a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Times, the VA chief said it is long past time to end in­quiries into in­ci­dents at Louis A. John­son VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Clarks­burg and pro­vide jus­tice for vic­tims. The Jus­tice De­part­ment late con­firmed that it had launched a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the deaths, un­der­scor­ing the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and the mag­ni­tude of the mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions un­der­way.

The scan­dal has drawn the ire of law­mak­ers — in­clud­ing Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat — and veter­ans groups, but de­tails re­mains scarce. Even the sec­re­tary said he has largely been kept in the dark and of­ten is un­aware of ba­sic facts sur­round­ing the in­quiries at his de­part­ment’s fa­cil­ity.

“The sad part of this,” Mr. Wilkie said in an in­ter­view on the side­lines of a ma­jor veter­ans sui­cide pre­ven­tion con­fer­ence, “is that I got most of my in­for­ma­tion, as Sen. Manchin has, from the news­pa­pers. You all know as much about what’s go­ing on there … as we do, as the cen­ters do. Some seem to know more.

“This has been go­ing on too long,” he said. “We owe that to the peo­ple who have suf­fered to get this thing done.”

Mr. Wilkie, who took over at the VA just over a year ago, also de­tailed the de­part­ment’s ef­forts to re­duce vet­eran sui­cides and the strides made in re­duc­ing wait times at med­i­cal cen­ters across the coun­try. He also praised for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, who re­signed last year amid deep dis­agree­ments with Pres­i­dent Trump.

Mr. Wilkie, a re­serve of­fi­cer in the U.S. Air Force, served as Mr. Mat­tis’ un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for per­son­nel and readi­ness. Mr. Mat­tis is mak­ing head­lines again as he pro­motes his new book and of­fers fresh de­tails about his break from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But Mr. Wilkie made his most pas­sion­ate com­ments about the sit­u­a­tion in Clarks­burg, where at least 11 deaths in 2017 and 2018 are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. One sus­pi­cious death re­port­edly cen­ters on a pa­tient who was given a fa­tal dose of in­sulin de­spite hav­ing no di­ag­no­sis of di­a­betes.

Much like the VA sec­re­tary, law­mak­ers say they are grow­ing an­gry at the lack of clar­ity.

“I’m frus­trated that I’m not get­ting an­swers be­cause of the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Mr. Manchin, a mem­ber of the Se­nate Veter­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment.

“All of the facts will come out and no one in the VA sys­tem will be pro­tected if they had any in­volve­ment in this hor­ri­ble crime against veter­ans,” he said. “We owe ev­ery vet­eran the best pos­si­ble care they’ve earned.”

The VA in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice would not di­rectly ad­dress Mr. Wilkie’s com­ments about the lack of in­for­ma­tion be­ing shared but said it con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing.

“At this time, we can­not com­ment fur­ther on those ac­tiv­i­ties. As is al­ways the case, the [VA in­spec­tor gen­eral] works with the de­part­ment to iden­tify and ur­gently ad­dress al­le­ga­tions re­lated to pa­tient safety. The care and safety of our veter­ans and their fam­i­lies re­main our top pri­or­ity,” VA In­spec­tor Gen­eral Michael J. Missal said in a state­ment.

A spokesman for the Clarks­burg VA fa­cil­ity told CNN that the al­le­ga­tions do not in­volve any cur­rent em­ploy­ees and that the cen­ter has put new safe­guards into place. The U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice for the North­ern District of Vir­ginia said it be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing “as soon as po­ten­tial crim­i­nal con­duct was dis­cov­ered and con­tin­ues to be a top pri­or­ity.”

The of­fice did not say when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion could be com­pleted.

While get­ting an­swers on the Clarks­burg sit­u­a­tion re­mains a top pri­or­ity, Mr. Wilkie said, the VA has made huge strides on the broader is­sue of re­duc­ing wait times at clin­ics across the coun­try. Of­fi­cials said more work needs to be done but stressed that wait times at many VA fa­cil­i­ties are lower now than at pri­vate doc­tors’ of­fices.

“At this point, in the last few days of Au­gust, we’ve had 1.5 mil­lion more ap­point­ments this year than we did all of last year,” Mr. Wilkie told The Times. “Veter­ans are vot­ing with their feet.”

Pre­vent­ing vet­eran sui­cides, the sec­re­tary said, also re­mains a top pri­or­ity for his de­part­ment. Mr. Wilkie said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which es­tab­lished a gov­ern­men­twide task force this year to tackle the is­sue, has put more re­sources into vet­eran sui­cides than ever be­fore.

“We’ve never had the pres­i­den­tial spot­light on an is­sue like sui­cide,” he said.

Mr. Wilkie also spoke highly of Mr. Mat­tis but steered clear of the re­tired Ma­rine Corps gen­eral’s pub­lic dis­agree­ments with the pres­i­dent.

“I’m not go­ing to com­ment on that, other than to say he’s al­ways been very kind to me, and he’s a great com­bat leader and some­body I was very proud to work for and with,” the sec­re­tary said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Veter­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Robert Wilkie said he has largely been kept in the dark about in­quiries at a West Vir­ginia VA fa­cil­ity.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.