A facility manager for Augusta, Georgia’s Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center has been indicted on 50 counts of instructing his staff to falsify medical records for patients seeking treatment outside of the VA health system. Cathedral Henderson pleaded not-guilty to the charges in U.S District Court in Savannah on Friday. Henderson managed revenue and billing for the facility, as well as managing the care of roughly 2,700 patients involved in the outside-care program, made possible by legislation passed last year to in order to assist the backlog in the VA system that led to the wait-time crisis. The indictment claims that Henderson, under pressure to clear his facility’s logjam, instructed his subordinates to falsify the records for 50 waitlisted patients, indicating that their treatment had been completed or declined. 45 of the 50 falsifications were for mammograms. If convicted, Henderson faces up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He has been placed on paid administrative leave and his access to VA systems has been revoked.
The indictment is the first of what many believe to be a wave of prosecutions for activity that came to light during last year’s shocking wait-time scandal, initiated first by a Phoenix whistleblower but later investigations found it to be a systemic failure throughout the Department of Veterans affairs. The VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has conducted investigations of 50 of the 99 facilities that were targeted for wait-list failures, leading to disciplinary action at five facilities and continuing investigations into potential wrongdoing in 16 others. Henderson is a lower-level employee compared to the six senior executives who were previously removed from their positions. Henderson’s attorney, Keith B. Johnson, has blamed resignations and an upheaval of senior leadership at the Augusta facility as the root of the problem, saying in an interview that his client “was following the directive of his supervisors, and that will come out in court documents.” The scandal also cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job, and it is estimated that 130 employees altogether have faced some form of disciplinary action stemming from the crisis.
Despite the indictment being against a mid-level employee, it shows progress toward holding individuals responsible for crisis that has been attributed to at least 18 deaths from lack of treatment. This includes three patients who died from cancer in 2011 and 2012 at the Augusta facility. A spokesperson for current VA Secretary Bob McDonald has stated that the agency has terminated the employment 1,495 VA employees via firings and probationary terminations. There is much cause for skepticism of these numbers, however. McDonald appeared on Meet the Press in February, touting that his administration had fired 60 people over the crisis. The Washington Post’s Factchecker gave McDonald a “four Pinocchios” rating, indicating that only 8 people had been disciplined at that time, with only three employees no longer working for the VA. Moreover, I indicated in an April post that technically not a single VA employee was fired due to the wait-time scandal as of April 23rd, 2015. At that time, only the former director of the Phoenix VA hospital, Sharon Helman, had actually been fired, and that was for “receiving inappropriate gifts.” One executive’s termination was also pending, one was forced to retire, and five were suspended for up to two months.
While it is very likely that additional disciplinary actions have been taken since April, despite the lengthy appeals process, McDonald himself has cited the mandated procedures of the Merit Systems Protection Board, which can drag out termination appeals for up to two years, as a major hindrance to an effective reboot. Chair of the House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller, has attempted to pass legislation streamlining the process to conclude within three months. A vote on that bill is expected later in the week. Miller is also urging President Obama to become more personally involved in the VA scandal, and several sources have noted that the VA is facing a $2.5 billion budgetary shortfall that may result in the closure of additional facilities. Between the budget issues, the cloggy bureaucratic process, and McDonald’s liberal interpretation of math, it is easy to understand how such a widespread scandal could have metastasized and concealed at the same time. If anything, the indictment is a positive sign for transparency, with public court records, sworn testimony, and potentially a finite conclusion in the eyes of the law.
Fierce Healthcare – Zack Budryk
Los Angeles Times – Christina Littlefield
Military Times – Leo Shane III
Washington Post – Lisa Rein