WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Representative Martha Roby and Senator Richard Shelby today applauded management changes at the troubled Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS), noting that the installation of new leadership is an important step toward better health care for area veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed this evening that CAVHCS Director James Talton and Chief of Staff Dr. Cliff Robinson have been removed from their positions.
The management shakeup comes in the wake of a letter from Shelby and Roby to newly installed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald alerting him to the many problems at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System and urging him to take action.
"Leadership starts at the top, and this change in senior management at CAVHCS was sorely needed. I applaud the VA for taking decisive action. Our local system is infested with a culture of complacency when it should in fact be home to a culture of excellence," Roby said. "Congress gave Secretary McDonald the tools he needs to hold people accountable and make improvements in care, and we will expect him to use those tools. We've worked very hard to fully understand the problems at CAVHCS, and I think this move is a step toward finding solutions-but it is only one step. We'll continue to work with the VA to hold bad actors responsible, support positive changes, and ensure that we get the best care possible to our veterans."
In July Congress passed legislation to help the VA address its medical care backlog and system wide management problems. The law greatly expands the Patient Centered Community Care (PC3) program to allow more veterans to seek care from non-VA providers, allocates more funding to hire additional doctors and increases accountability by authorizing the VA to fire or demote Senior Executive Service employees for poor performance.
"When I met with Secretary Robert McDonald last month prior to his confirmation, he assured me that he would act expeditiously to address my and Congresswoman Martha Roby's concerns about the inexcusable mismanagement of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System," Shelby said. "His action today in replacing the two top officials in Montgomery who presided over such mistreatment is a promising sign that he is serious about addressing the many problems at the VA across the country, and particularly in Montgomery. This is only the first step in a difficult journey to improve care for our veterans, but it is an important one and I welcome it."
Robin Jackson, Ph.D., was named acting medical center Director at CAVHCS, and Srinivas Ginjupalli, M.D., was named acting Chief of Staff. Dr. Jackson most recently served at the VA Southeast Network in Duluth, Ga., where he is the deputy network director. Dr. Ginjupalli is the deputy chief of staff at CAVHCS.
For months, Roby's office has been digging into serious allegations of mismanagement, negligence and cover-up within Central Alabama's VA system. In June, she dispatched two senior members of her staff to meet with whistleblowers to identify and expose problems within the system.
"I want to thank all those who had the courage to step forward and provide my office with information regarding the problems at CAVHCS," Roby said. "I know that there has been real fear of retaliation, which makes these individual's willingness to expose wrongdoing so admirable."
Information made public since that time include:
· At least 900 unread patient X-RAY tests - many showing malignancies - were lost until recently, and top hospital administrators tried to cover up the problem,
· The VA regional chief medical officer asked staff to remove all references to the problems with lost X-rays from a report;
· More than 441 staff positions have gone unfilled while only 38 job openings are posted online;
· The VA pulmonologist found to have manipulated more than 1,200 patient records was caught doing it again, and yet, went on to receive a "satisfactory performance" review
· CAVHCS' problems paying its bills on time is affecting its ability to depend on local hospitals to help with increased demand,
· Email records show the Central Alabama VA director was alerted to concerns over patient scheduling discrepancies more than eight months before taking action,
· More than 57 percent of staff surveyed at Montgomery-based CAVHCS said they receive "instruction" from the facility to manipulate patient wait times, according to an "Access Audit" conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
· A CAVHCS worker took a recovering veteran patient off campus to a crack house, bought him illegal drugs, may have extorted VA payments to pay for vehicles and services from a prostitute, and fraudulently claimed overtime pay for all the extracurricular activities. Yet, despite being caught and found guilty of the violations, the worker is still employed at CAVHCS more than a year after the incident.
An excerpt of last month's letter to Secretary McDonald reads as follows:
"Reports regarding the treatment of veterans in Alabama are dire and appalling. While we have yet to see a comprehensive account of the allegations, it is our understanding that the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) has the eighth longest average wait times in the nation for veterans to receive care, even with its recorded manipulated recordkeeping. Whistleblowers allege that veterans' x-rays have been lost, which may have in turn led to cancer and other life-threatening conditions going untreated. The leadership of the CAVHCS is alleged to have tolerated or encouraged whistleblower intimidation and retaliation, which possibly continued and exacerbated the abuse. To date, we do not believe that proper action has been taken to mitigate these allegations. Instead of swiftly working to fix the serious problems at the CAVHCS, all reports suggest that its leaders are focused on dodging blame and personal cost rather than serving veterans and providing the care and treatment promised. We have lost trust in the leadership at the CAVHCS."
According to the VA, Director James Talton and Chief of Staff Dr. Cliff Robinson have been placed on administrative leave to allow for a thorough and unbiased transition process.