- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2014

Twenty-three employees at a Department of Veterans Affairs center in Louisiana were placed on leave in 2010 as part of an investigation into document forgeries, a move revealed only in federal whistleblower lawsuits filed years later.

The investigation focused on records required to prove staff “competencies” at a medical facility in Shreveport, Louisiana, according to the complaints.

Nancy Faulk, an associate chief nurse at a VA hospital in Shreveport, filed a lawsuit last fall disclosing that employees “were identified as participating in the falsification of competency records.”

She accused the department of retaliating against her for raising concerns that race figured into disciplinary actions against three black nurses as a result of the investigation, according to the lawsuit, which is pending in federal court.

In a separate but related case in 2012, Harriet Cunningham, a former employee also at the Overton Brooks Medical Center in Shreveport, claimed the center’s acting medical director did not initially place white nurses on non-duty status nor include them in the administrative investigation.

VA officials in Louisiana and in Washington did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Times about the outcome of the investigation and the extent of forgeries. But the questions have been raised at a time of heightened scrutiny into VA record-keeping practices as the department tries to contain a widening scandal.

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Multiple VA facilities are facing investigations from the agency’s inspector general into whether officials falsified wait times to cover up long delays facing veterans as they sought treatment, including in Phoenix, where as many as 40 veterans reportedly died while waiting for care.

Nurses investigated in Shreveport ultimately faced recommendations for dismissal or demotions, according to court records. A lawyer representing both nurses did not respond to messages seeking comment this week. Both sides agreed to dismiss the Cunningham case, but court filings did not indicate whether the case was settled.

But the accusations of misconduct involved documents required to verify that personnel were adequately trained in sterile processing and decontamination procedures, according to the court filings.

The issue received national attention in 2009 when the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held hearings after more than 10,000 former VA patients nationwide were notified that they had been treated with potentially contaminated equipment.

Although the hearings focused on contamination at several VA facilities, the Overton Brooks center was not among them.

It’s unclear whether the Louisiana VA center is under scrutiny for its record-keeping practices as part of the broader VA scandal, but Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, on Thursday called for a “complete review” of VA facilities nationwide after a meeting with embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

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Mr. Shinseki is facing calls for his resignation and questions about why the VA hasn’t responded sooner to concerns about scheduling delays and questions about accuracy of patient wait lists.

The Times reported Wednesday that the VA’s inspector general told the Obama-Biden transition team weeks after the 2008 election that its recommendations to fix “systemic” problems went unheeded during the George W. Bush administration.

Transition team officials were briefed on three audits from 2005 to 2008 — all raising questions about the VA’s wait time and scheduling problems.

On Thursday, six Republicans on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs sent a letter to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, calling for oversight hearings.

“It is obvious from the recent VA scandals that the department desperately needs vigorous oversight,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican.

The House on Wednesday passed a bill that would make it easier for Mr. Shinseki to fire poor-performing officials, a move that Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House panel overseeing the VA, called “an important step toward ending the culture of complacency.”

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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