Watchdog report: Failed VA leadership put patients at risk

WASHINGTON (AP) — “Failed leadership” at the Department of Veterans Affairs during the Obama years put patients at a major hospital at risk, an internal probe finds — another blow to Secretary David Shulkin, who served at the VA then and is fighting to keep his job.

The 150-page report released Wednesday by the VA internal watchdog offers new details to its preliminary finding last April of patient safety issues at the Washington, D.C., medical center.

Shulkin acknowledged to reporters that the problems were “systemic,” but said he was not aware of the issues at the Washington hospital. He pledged wide-scale change across the VA.

Painting a grim picture of communications breakdowns, chaos and spending waste at the government’s second largest department, the report found that at least three VA program offices directly under Shulkin’s watch knew of “serious, persistent deficiencies” when he was VA undersecretary of health from 2015 to 2016. But it stopped short of saying whether he was told about them.

Shulkin, who was elevated to VA secretary last year by President Donald Trump, told government investigators that he did “not recall” ever being notified of problems.

Among the changes he promised — unannounced audits of its more than 1,700 medical facilities from health experts in the private sector, immediate hiring to fill vacancies at local hospitals and plans in the coming months to streamline bureaucracy and improve communication.

Shulkin pointed specifically to VA medical centers in the New England, Arizona and Washington D.C. regions that needed improvements to address patient safety. “Not to act when you identify systemic failures I think would be negligent,” he said.

Shulkin has been struggling to keep a grip on his job since a blistering report by the inspector general last month concluded that he had violated ethics rules by improperly accepting Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife traveling to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.

He also faces a rebellion among some VA staff and has issued a sharp warning to them: Get back in line or get out. “I suspect that people are right now making decisions on whether they want to be a part of this team or not,” he said last month.

On Wednesday, the White House affirmed its continued support for Shulkin despite the controversies swirling around him, saying he has done a “great job” implementing changes at VA. “We’re proud of the work that we’ve done and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to … help veterans in this country,” said spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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