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December 17 2015

VA Pays out Nearly $900 Million Settling Claims of Medical Mistakes

Patrice J. Lee

There are so many problems plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs,  (VA) from mismanagement to misconduct by employees. Yet, instead of disciplinary action and expulsion, wrong-doers get tend to receive a paid vacation (a.k.a administrative leave).   

The bleeding of our tax dollars doesn’t stop there though. Apparently, we’ve spent $871 million in medical malpractice settlements over the past decades to pay for mistakes by inept VA workers.

The VA has paid out 4,353 malpractice settlements since 2006, with the number of settlements rising each year from 322 in 2006 to 541 last year. The payouts were sizeable as well at $200,000 on average, although there were a handful of $1 million + settlements.

The Daily Caller reports on a particularly egregious case:

The Daily Caller News Foundation reported Dec. 9, 2015, on the case of Fredrick Kevin Harris, a 240-pound nurse’s aide who witnesses say beat a 70-year-old VA patient to death. The coroner, prosecutors and inspector general agreed.

The VA cleared Harris in an internal investigation, took no disciplinary action, and insisted there was no negligence and all policies were followed. Harris still works at the hospital. But that didn’t prevent VA from paying a $215,000 settlement in the Harris case.

Anything that the VA could have possibly said to the families of the victim in this case to ease their pain would’ve been overshadowed by the fact that Harris kept his job, even though the VA had to pay a hefty settlement to the Harris heirs.

This case highlights that settlements are being used as hush money and to help the VA manage their public image. VA leaders and workers are doing a dandy job of destroying the agency’s image and not holding accountable those responsible only serves to underscore that the VA is a mismanaged federal agency that fumbles the health and well-being of our nation’s heroes.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’ Affairs, told TheDCNF VA is paying twice by keeping incompetent employees on staff while also having to clean up the legal messes they create.

“The fact that VA reached a settlement agreement with the victim’s family in this case appears to be a tacit admission that the department’s actions were wrong. But the key question VA leaders must now answer is ‘who will be disciplined for the wrongdoing and when?’” Miller told TheDCNF.

Miller and other VA critics say the department enters into settlements in part to protect bad employees, whom it has seemed reluctant to fire. The lack of any finding of wrongdoing in court is in turn used as evidence that the employee should not be disciplined.

The VA has little monetary incentive to avoid keeping reckless employees on the payroll because settlements are paid out of a different department’s money. The Department of Treasury has a “judgment fund,” an “indefinite appropriation” that can pay out money for other agencies’ errors.

The VA’s response is once again to minimize the severity of this problem saying that malpractice settlements made up 0.0004 percent of the 93 million patient visits in 2014. That is no solace when we consider the harm – and in the case of 70-year-old patient who allegedly died as a result of injuries by Harris.

Huge settlements for apparent malfeasance are just one of many problems plaguing the VA.

We are left to wonder if there will ever be a change in the culture of the VA. The hope is minimal; as we reported, VA officials don’t even think there’s enough of a problem to hold their own employees responsible, which is a fundamental leadership and culture problem itself.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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