In Part One, we used a nickname for VA Prescott medical center – the Outpost. The term “outpost” to describe the Prescott VA was given to this reporter by a member of management at the Tucson VA medical center who was assigned to the Prescott VA a year ago to help clean up problems and offer management skills to Prescott. He explained that there are three levels of VA hospitals with Phoenix and Tucson being Level One, and the Tucson manager said, “Prescott is like a third level outpost of sorts.”
The Prescott VA has an interesting history as an outpost. Its first settlement, known as Fort Whipple, was ordered to be built by President Abe Lincoln in order to keep the peace and keep the Confederates out of Arizona, and some buildings from the 1880s are still in use by the VA today. President Hoover consolidated the U.S. Veterans Bureau along with several agencies focused on the treatment of veterans and made the group into the Veterans Administration, and in 1931 the Whipple Barracks was officially transferred from the War Department to the newly-established Veterans Administration. But crumbling buildings and bad employee attitudes are not excuses for bad care and lucrative bonuses.
Dr. David Houlihan, former chief of staff at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin was paid a $4,000 performance bonus – taxpayer money he kept after being fired for overprescribing opiates. He was chief of staff and was nicknamed Candyman by his Vets; he surrendered his medical license.
Retired television news reporter Tom Joles, from Wisconsin, said, “When every single person gets a bonus it sounds a bit suspicious. Don’t bonuses go to those who stand out? At the VA in Prescott, they either have a lot of exceptional workers or they have money to burn.”
The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, whose chairman is Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, helped author a 2019 report on “improper federal bonuses” for the U.S. Senate, and the committee planned to pass a bill to improve the practice at all federal agencies. Johnson included Dr. Houlihan in his report and specifically called out others who were at the VA gravy trough:
The former Deputy Chief Business Officer for Purchased Care at the VA, Patricia Gheen, retired after a VA OIG investigation found that she attempted to steer more than $2 million in contracts to a firm that employed her former boss. Gheen received nearly $35,000 in bonuses while employed at the VA.
Kimberly Graves, a VA benefits office director, received a bonus for 2014, the year in which she improperly used her authority for personal and financial benefit. A VA OIG report found that Graves “participated personally and substantially in creating a position (vacancy) and then volunteered for the vacancy. She got more than $129,000 in relocation expenses for taking a position that she created for herself, plus an $8,697 bonus.
Another bonus recipient, Jack Hetrick, a VA official at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, retired within weeks of collecting a $12,075 bonus after receiving a notice of pending removal. The VA proposed firing Hetrick after a review found that Barbara Temeck, the acting chief of staff at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, was prescribing medications and providing other medical care to Hetrick’s family without a proper license.
In 2015, the VA awarded more than $177 million in bonuses, but that year not everybody got a bonus -189,000 of the 330,000 VA employees got one; reason unknown. One bonus shell-out was to Dr. Darren Deering, one of the former chiefs of staff at the Phoenix VA; he received a $5,000 bonus just four months before being fired for “negligent performance. But Deering wasn’t the only bonus baby Director at Phoenix VA who was fired with a bonus.
In 2015, more than 300 senior executives at the VA received $3.3 million in bonuses, for an average payment of about $10,000 each. Non-executives received about $900 on average.
Phoenix businessman, Rick Suman has followed the history at both the Prescott and the Phoenix VA where one director told staff to cook the books and deny there were long waits to get an appointment, and long waits once you got into to building, “Upper level employees at the VA do not deserve bonuses if they fail to meet objective standards that merit bonus pay,” said Suman. “I would lessen that and incentivize mid-level employees to improve quality of outcomes in VA care in order to receive bonuses. Quality will improve when it is directly tied to everyone’s objective performance pay. Only ‘standards met’ equals ‘merit pay’. It will also separate the wheat from the chaff by exposing those employees who only like to do the minimums and no more.”
The Prescott VA claims it cares for 29,000 Veterans across Northern Arizona – from Page and Lake Powell through Flagstaff, down the Colorado River communities and east to just north of Phoenix. That is a large region and a lot of Vets, and perhaps the VA employees are overworked and under resourced, with that leading to bad attitudes and performance.
The Other VA Scam
For years, the “other slush fund” appropriated by Congress – TriWest Healthcare of Phoenix – paid the checks to ‘outside’, or ‘civilian’ doctors. I urge readers to search for an online ProPublica investigation of TriWest that described the company losing an enormous federal contract. Later TriWest got the lucrative VA cash cow job. TriWest is simply a money pass-through that takes Congressional appropriated money and gives it to outside providers authorized by VA Med Centers under the Community Care program. The problem with TriWest and its owner, the Learjet flying Dave McIntyre, is that the Pentagon took away their first contract – a healthcare program for active duty military and families – because he was investigated for fraud. Apparently that qualified him for the new VA Community Care Program, but also because he was friends with Arizona’s John McCain.
Prescott eNews was the first to go in-depth on a local eye surgeon who many of us Prescott Vets have utilized, and paid by the TriWest kibble bowl – Dr. Lee Ham of Prescott – who is under federal investigation and is being prosecuted by the Arizona Attorney General in Superior Court in Prescott for alleged fraud against the VA, Medicare, Medicaid and others.
So we Vets can’t win either way. Either we have horrible care at the VA or they ship us out to a fraudulent company that sets us up with alleged fraudulent care givers.
But the Washington swamp sometimes lives in denial of any VA employee problems, and simply turns a deaf ear and pumps more gravy into the unsupervised trough of greed.
The VA claims it embraces five “Core Values” for all its employees…
Integrity: Act with high moral principle. Adhere to the highest professional standards. Maintain the trust and confidence of all with whom I engage.
Commitment: Work diligently to serve Veterans and other beneficiaries. Be driven by an earnest belief in VA’s mission. Fulfill my individual responsibilities and organizational responsibilities.
Advocacy: Be truly Veteran-centric by identifying, fully considering, and appropriately advancing the interests of Veterans and other beneficiaries.
Respect: Treat all those I serve and with whom I work with dignity and respect. Show respect to earn it.
Excellence: Strive for the highest quality.
In Part Three, we will look at how dozens of Veterans feel about the VA, and give personal insights from this Veteran/reporter.
This investigation has also been published in the Western News Service.