- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Department of Veterans Affairs was hit with more bad news Tuesday on two fronts, as an investigation showed the agency’s legal settlements have more than tripled in the past five years, and a congressional review outlined “systemic failures” at the VA’s notorious medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin.

The VA’s total annual payments to settle legal claims rose to $338 million in 2015, up from $98 million in 2011, reaching a total of $848 million over the past five years, the New York Daily News reported, citing information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The report said the rise in settlements was largely due to soaring medical malpractice claims and botched construction projects.

The lawsuits included one by the estate of a U.S. Army veteran who died from internal bleeding in Cleveland after complications from routine gallbladder surgery and a Vietnam veteran from St. Petersburg, Florida, who died from colon cancer after doctors ignored warning signs on his medical tests for three years in a row.

A VA spokeswoman didn’t comment on the overall spike in settlements but said the agency investigates all legal claims carefully.

Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a 359-page report Tuesday detailing the tragedies at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin. The 16-month investigation concluded that the facility lacked appropriate oversight and ignored complaints for years from veterans and whistleblowers about problems including overmedication, which led to the facility’s nickname as “Candyland.”

The report said serious problems with overprescribed medicine and abuse of authority from at least 2007 to 2015 resulted in at least two veterans’ deaths and the suicide of a staff psychologist.

“The Tomah VAMC is a microcosm of both the VA’s cultural problems with respect to whistleblower retaliation and the VA [inspector general’s] disregard for whistleblowers,” said Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican.

In a field hearing of the Senate committee Tuesday, a top VA official acknowledged the department’s failures at the Tomah Medical Center and said the agency is working to prevent similar failures.

“More than anything else, this is a leadership failure,” VA deputy secretary Sloan Gibson said. “There’s lots of finger-pointing. At the end of the day, we own this. We’ve had ample opportunity over a period of years to fix this. That’s leadership’s responsibility. We failed to get it done.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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