Director Of VA ‘Candy Land’ Facility Reassigned, But Not Fired

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The Department of Veterans Affairs announced it is reassigning the director of the VA medical center in Tomah, Wis., which has recently been thrown into the spotlight over allegations of excessive opioid prescription policies.

Mario DeSanctis hasn’t lost his job, and no reason has been given for his reassignment. The VA is moving him to the Great Lakes Health Care System, The Associates Press reported on March 21. In the interim, John Rohrer, associate medical center director at the Madison VA medical center, will take over at Tomah.

Tomah is currently under investigation by acting inspector general Richard Griffin based on whistleblower reports of an epidemic of lax opioid prescription policies. (RELATED: Congressmen Demand Investigation Into Out Of Control Opioids At VA Facility)

These reports detailed instances where veterans were so doped up that they accidentally burned themselves with cigarettes and drooled uncontrollably. The facility has at times been called “Candy Land,” having gained a certain notoriety for opioid use. In the meantime, Congress is none too pleased with Griffin, as the office of the inspector general withheld a preliminary report on the troubled Wisconsin facility. (RELATED: Review Finds Harmful Prescription Drug Policies At Tomah VA)

AP also recently reported on March 16 that Griffin is withholding other investigative reports from Congress.

This isn’t the first time that Griffin has run afoul of Congress, though the White House recently stepped up to bat for the acting inspector general. After the VA scandal in Phoenix finally erupted in April 2014, accusations surfaced that acting inspector general Richard Griffin willingly acquiesced to VA and White House interference in the IG report on the scandal.

Almost a year later, the White House has stated that it is in no hurry to replace Griffin with a permanent IG

“I don’t know of any specific announcement regarding an inspector general,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said on March 12, 2015. “I would say it’s my understanding that the administration profoundly respects and admires the work of inspector generals across the administration and throughout various agencies, whether they are Senate-confirmed or not.”

The Aug. 26, 2014, IG report on the wait list scandal in Phoenix, which linked delayed care to the deaths of 40 veterans, underwent drastic changes at the behest of Sloan Gibson, deputy VA secretary, and White House deputy chief of Staff Rob Nabors, earlier that August. Aside from the deaths, the report found that thousands of veterans had received untimely care.

The original Phoenix whistleblower, Dr. Sam Foote, said that the language inserted by Griffin’s office into the report was a “whitewash,” which essentially removed responsibility from the VA and would discourage future whistleblowing. According to internal emails released by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the language inserted stated that inspectors “were unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans.”

But according to Foote, this is not what he originally claimed. He said that patients died while waiting an unnecessarily long time, as medical experts agree that time by itself can’t cause death–only disease or injury can. Time is only a contributing factor.

When questioned by Congress, Griffin stated again and again that the VA never “dictated” any changes to the report. Instead, modifications were made due to “consultation,” according to The Arizona Republic. It also turned out that Griffin never interviewed Sharon Helman, director of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, during the investigation. In fact, Helman did have knowledge of the manipulated patient wait lists. Griffin grudgingly conceded that had veterans in Phoenix received timely, appropriate care, “they might have lived longer, they could have had a better quality of life at the end … and there is no denying it may have contributed.”

On July 30, 2014, Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, joined on as the new VA Secretary. Gibson moved from acting VA Secretary to his previous position as deputy secretary. Since VA inspector general George Opfer retired on Dec. 31, 2013, the position has been vacant of a permanent inspector general, with Griffin left to fill the gap.

Since Oct. 31, 2014, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has been asking the White House to send in a permanent replacement. None has been forthcoming, and the recent White House announcement only confirmed that Griffin, an acting inspector general who often opposes Congress, will remain in his position for the foreseeable future.

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