The results of an investigation published late last week casts a dim light on the Department of Veterans Affairs and its handling of medical malpractice.
Experts from within the agency placed the blame for nearly 100 botched procedures on a single physician.
USA Today reported on Friday that the VA said Dr. Thomas Franchini “drilled the wrong screw into the bone of one veteran. He severed a critical tendon in another. He cut into patients who didn’t need surgeries at all. Twice, he failed to properly fuse the ankle of a woman, who chose to have her leg amputated rather than endure the pain.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that, in the span of some several years, Franchini harmed his patients in 88 separate cases handled at Togus hospital in Maine.
“We found that he was a dangerous surgeon,” said the hospital’s former surgery chief, Robert Sampson, speaking at a deposition in an ongoing lawsuit against the VA.
But Franchini was never punished by the bureau, despite the findings of internal investigations making their way to the department’s highest ranks.
The physician was allowed to resign, quietly and without issue, before moving into private practice.
USA Today writes that Franchini never disclosed his past to patients or to the state regulators who granted and renewed his medical license. Today, he’s working as a podiatrist in New York City.
The journalists who covered the affair say the VA’s dismissal of Franchini’s negligence isn’t isolated – at other hospitals, secret settlements were signed between facilities and doctors, nurses and other healthcare employees.
Under the terms of the agreements, VA hospitals would agree to conceal professional and personal misdeeds, even after dismissing professionals from the agency’s employ.
“In at least 126 cases,” says the USA Today report, “the VA initially found the workers’ mistakes or misdeeds were so serious that they should be fired. In nearly three-quarters of those settlements, the VA agreed to purge negative records from personnel files or give neutral or positive references to prospective employers.”
Of those 126 settlements, the VA banned 70 employees from ever working at their facilities again – all while promising to not reveal the specific reasons for an individual’s dismissal.
One radiologist responsible for misreading ‘dozens of CT scans’ was paid $42,000 in compensation for unused sick and leave pay, rather than being fired outright.
The total amount spent by the VA on so-called ‘secret settlements’ is close to $6.7 million.
In response to USA Today’s investigation and subsequent report, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that all internal settlements amounting to more than $5,000 must now be approved by the department’s top brass in Washington.
The revelations have led to Congress contemplating increased protections for whistleblowers, who are largely responsible for leaking documents pertaining to the falsification of patient records by the Department of Veterans Affairs.