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Former VA surgeon paints bleak picture of hospital

Tuesday, 12 Nov 2013 | 10:58 AM ET
Unsterile surgical instruments at Jackson VA
Tuesday, 12 Nov 2013 | 10:00 AM ET
CNBC's Investigations, Inc. found concerns that could affect patient safety at the VA hospital in Jackson, MS. A former surgeon said he found pieces of bones on surgical instruments. Despite the problems, administrators received bonuses. Dina Gusovsky reports.

Over the course of CNBC's four month investigation for "Death & Dishonor: Crisis at The VA," we spoke with congressional leaders, veterans and their families and a number of VA employees who were so outraged by the poor conditions at the hospitals where they work that they felt compelled to come forward.

But it wasn't an easy decision for them, primarily because the VA warned employees not to speak with the media. One orthopedic surgeon who used to work at the Jackson, Miss., VA, agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity. He asked that we shoot his interview in shadow but allowed us to use his real voice. He painted a bleak picture of conditions of surgical equipment at the hospital.

"Occasionally we'd find pieces of bone" on equipment, he told CNBC. "What it really shows is that no one is really taking the time or care to clean the instruments."

(Read more: Chair of House panel says VA 'overwhelmed')

His story was backed up by Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, who still works at the hospital. She testified on Sept. 9 about problems at the Jackson center. "Essentially everything that happens in primary care at the Jackson VA can be included under the umbrella of being unethical, illegal, heartbreaking, and life threatening for the veterans, and everything in the care of the veterans starts in primary care."

And many of Hollenbeck's claims are substantiated by an independent watchdog group called Office of Special Counsel. That group raised concerns about understaffing, and the prescribing of narcotics, among other things.

But the VA undersecretary of health, Dr. Robert Petzel, who recently announced his retirement, downplayed the problems in Jackson. He said this in a speech earlier this year, "there have been some public kerfuffles in the paper that don't in my mind reflect the Jackson VA facility."

(Read more: Rare disease at hospital raises concerns about VA health care)

And in a statement to CNBC, the VA said Jackson has implemented stringent oversight processes to ensure reusable medical equipment is cleaned and sterilized according to manufacturers' instructions before every use."

But CNBC's whistleblower doctor said the problems don't stop with unsanitary conditions in the operating room. "The doctor is the coordinator and commander of this system and makes the decisions. At the VA, it's exactly the reverse. It's an upside down pyramid and the doctor is on the bottom. Particularly when they order medication for some specific reason, they say" 'Well you can't get that here,' and in general when they say they can't get it, that means it's too expensive," he told us.

He said money and cost concerns played a huge role in decisions at the Jackson VA. "Basically what we were doing was saying you need treatment but because our surgery schedule now is backed up so much, you'll have to wait three months or longer for your surgery."

(Read more: Whistleblowers shed light on VA abuse allegations)

We repeatedly asked for a sit-down interview with the VA but our offer was declined. CNBC did receive a written statement that included this: "Jackson has undergone 108 consultative program reviews, site visits, and external surveys, including recent unannounced visits from The Joint Commission, the IG, the OMI, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Recent recommendations have been minor, and Jackson is accredited by all appropriate agencies, including The Joint Commission."

The people running the hospital were handsomely rewarded. The director of the Jackson VA, Joe Battle, received a $6,500 bonus last year on top of his $165,000 salary, and Rica Lewis-Payton, the network director of the South Central Health Care Network, which includes Jackson, got almost $36,000 in bonuses last year, on top of her $180,000 salary.

The VA declined to comment on the bonuses.

By CNBC's Jeff Pohlman and Dina Gusovsky. Follow us on Twitter @CNBCinvestigate.

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