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U.S. soldiers during a Veterans Day ceremony in Afghanistan. Reuters. U.S. soldiers during a Veterans Day ceremony in Afghanistan. Reuters.  

Drugs, corruption go unpunished in Mississippi VA center

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Michael Volpe
Contributor

A number of top level managers at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. remain employed in their positions or in other positions within the Veterans Administration despite an Office of Special Counsel report from 2013 that implicated each in criminal wrongdoing, The Daily Caller has learned.

A 22-page letter from Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigator Carolyn Lerner from September 13, 2013 implicated several members in the criminal wrongdoing: Joe Battle, the director of the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center; Dr. Kent Kirchner, the chief operating officer; Dr. James Lockyer, the head of Primary Care; and Dorothy White-Taylor, the former associate director of patient care. The letter, addressed to President Barack Obama, also implicated Dr. Gregg Parker, the chief medical officer for Veteran Integration Services Network 16, which oversees a basket of hospitals including the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center.

The report stated that many of the problems stemmed from the hospital’s reliance on nurse practitioners at the expense of doctors, largely at the behest of Dorothy White-Taylor.

According to the report, there were “numerous issues regarding patient safety, provision of services, and certification of medical providers.” Specifically, Drs. Kirchner and Lockyer were implicated in the report for prescribing medication to patients they didn’t treat.

“Dr. Kirchner and Dr. Lockyer commonly signed the form [to prescribe narcotics] as the certifying physician even though providing patient care was never a part of their duties.”

The report also implicated Battle and Dr. Parker for pressuring doctors at the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center to sign a collaborative agreement with nurse practitioners (NPs), even though the doctors weren’t in a position to supervise the NPs, and could be subject to malpractice suits if the NPs committed a medical error. According to the report, when some doctors resisted signing these collaborative agreements, Battle and Dr. Parker threatened to withhold part of their paychecks.

Additionally, the report cited a series of emails from Dorothy “Dot” Taylor-White to medical staff encouraging doctors to sign off for narcotics prescriptions for patients seen by NPs, a criminal act according to one of the whistleblowers, Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck. The report further stated that Taylor’s power and clout in the hospital caused doctors to be fearful of reporting this misdeeds.

“Dr. Hollenbeck further stated physicians were ignored when they raised concerns about NPs practicing as [licensed independent practitioners] LIPs, because NPs and Ms. White-Taylor had significant power in the facility, such that physicians feared retaliation,” the report reads.

The problems at the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center have been the subject of two House Veteran Affairs Committee (HVAC) hearings, in September and November 2013, along with the OSC report. Despite all this oversight, no one has been held to account, said whistleblowers Dr. Hollenbeck and Erik Heaton, a military veteran who served for more than 40 years.

Battle continues to be the director of the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center. Dr. Lockyer was transferred to the Mountain Home, Tennessee VA Medical Center, where he is currently a physician. Dr. Parker continues to be the chief medical officer of the region. Only Dot Taylor is no longer with the VA system.

Taylor was arrested on drug charges in early 2012, before the events in the OSC report, only to have those charges dropped in March 2013. Taylor was working in a managerial role at the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) regional office until she retired on March 7, 2014, and her final salary was $163,574, according to VISN 16 public affairs officer Benita McClellan .

A phone call and email to the media department at the VA wasn’t returned, and an email to VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki was also not answered.

In the September 2013 HVAC hearing, VISN 16 Director Rica Lewis-Payton, who oversees the Sonny Montgomery Medical Center, defended the region and stressed that accountability was a priority.

“Be assured that we have thoroughly investigated various allegations,” Lewis-Payton said. “We know that a number of issues have been raised about this center, and we take those concerns seriously. We work aggressively to identify and correct any errors, and we are adopting a series of significant reforms to improve the center. When appropriate to do so, we hold people accountable.”

UPDATE:

The V.A. responded to TheDC’s request for comment after this article was published, writing:

V.A. is deeply committed to providing the quality care and benefits our nation’s veterans have earned and deserve. V.A. welcomes recommendations of the Office of Special Counsel as an opportunity to evaluate our programs and identify areas for improvement.  Although the Office of Special Counsel review team determined that no changes in agency rules, regulations, or practices should be made as a result of this investigation, the fact-finding team made a number of recommendations for the facility to adhere to or enforce current rules, regulations, practices and policies. Leadership from the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery V.A. Medical Center has developed an action plan and monitors responsibilities for each of the recommended actions described in the report.

V.A. takes seriously any issue that occurs at one of the more than 1,800 facilities across the country. All employees are expected to help V.A. achieve its mission of providing veterans the highest quality care possible. When an incident occurs, V.H.A. [Veterans Health Administration] leadership conducts a prompt review to understand what happened, prevent similar incidents in the future, hold those responsible accountable consistent with due process under the law, and share lessons learned across the system.