- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said Thursday that there is new evidence of a “culture of corruption” at a veterans hospital in suburban Chicago and that a federal investigation of the facility should examine whether any alleged delays in treatment contributed to the deaths of patients.

After pressure from the Illinois Republican and others, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expanded a nationwide investigation to include the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital west of Chicago. The claims of an effort to cover up delays in patient appointments at Hines have come from VA social worker and union representative Germaine Clarno. Similar allegations first surfaced in Phoenix last month and prompted an investigation of more than two dozen VA medical facilities nationwide.

Among Clarno’s new allegations is a claim that in a rush to meet a required 14-day deadline for appointments, veterans were brought in for group consultations or informational sessions but did not actually see doctors or receive medical care.

Hospital spokeswoman Charity Hardison would not respond to the specific allegations but said in an emailed statement that the hospital’s director was taking the claims seriously and supports the investigation.

“If the allegations are true, the inappropriate behavior is unacceptable and employees will be held accountable,” the statement said.

Hines Director Joan Ricard has denied Clarno’s original allegations that there was a secret patient waitlist and said that she was not aware of any occurrences of data manipulation.

Kirk said Thursday that his office also obtained an internal memo Ricard wrote to employees in which she pleads with them to follow the rules on scheduling, and the senator contends it amounts to an acknowledgement she was aware of problems at Hines.

“It’s evidence of a culture of corruption at Hines VA,” Kirk said in a phone interview.

The memo was dated May 8, after the allegations surfaced in Phoenix but before Clarno came out with claims against Hines.

“Over the years, with the complexity of the scheduling process and the pressure to improve reported results, there have been instances across the VA where staff has taken steps to make wait times look better,” Ricard wrote. “This memo is both a request and a plea that we all do our best to follow the recommended scheduling practices closely.”

Hardison, the Hines spokeswoman, confirmed the authenticity of the memo.

Kirk has also asked acting VA inspector general Richard Griffin to look into data unearthed by Cox Media Group showing VA payouts to five families of veterans who alleged the patients died as a result of treatment delays at Hines.

Kirk is also questioning $16.6 million in bonuses for Hines personnel since 2011 and wants to know whether the pressure to meet benchmarks for those awards led to scheduling manipulation. The bonuses were revealed in response to a public records request filed by Clarno, according to Kirk’s office.

Kirk has asked to meet with Griffin and his investigators and is working with Clarno to identify databases to seek access to and key staffers to interview.

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