Death & Dishonor: Crisis at the VA

Whistleblowers shed light on VA abuse allegations

A Purple Heart recipient's troubles at Jackson VA
A Purple Heart recipient's troubles at Jackson VA

The G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., has had seven whistleblowers, the most at any of the Department of Veteran Affairs' 153 hospitals across the country, according to congressional sources and the Office of Special Counsel.

Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, who works at the VA in Jackson, is one of the whistleblowers. Her complaints included an allegation that she experienced pressure to sign prescriptions without the opportunity to see the patients in question. And she said the hospital is not properly staffed.

"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," Hollenbeck said at a House Committee on Veterans Affairs Congressional Hearing in Pittsburgh in September.

Many of her complaints were substantiated by the office of special counsel. Its findings in a Sept. 17 report said that 75 percent of the total primary care unit staff consisted of nurse practitioners, compared with an average of 25 percent for the VA. It also concluded that the center's policy of prescribing narcotics was inconsistent with federal law.

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In a statement to CNBC, the VA said, "VA welcomes recommendations of the Office of Special Counsel as an opportunity to evaluate our programs and identify areas for improvement. They also said, "The concerns raised pertaining to primary care staffing are still under review."

But the VA's undersecretary of Health, Dr. Robert Petzel, has downplayed the problems at the Jackson center in April.

"There have been some public kerfuffles in the paper that don't in my mind reflect the Jackson VA facility," Petzel said at a town hall meeting at the hospital.

The G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center.
Source: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Despite Petzel's remarks, a CNBC investigation found current patients who have experienced problems. Among them:

CJ Jackson, a Purple Heart recipient and 101st Airborne medic, was severely wounded during a battle in Afghanistan when an enemy rocket-propelled grenade hit a wall a couple of feet from him, sending debris into his arm and leg. He said he waited over a year to see a doctor at the Jackson VA despite being considered critically injured.

Vietnam veteran Bob Slater has been going for care to the Jackson VA for decades. "They've diminished my quality of life, they've diminished my longevity."

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Slater claimed he's had kidney disease since 2004 but that no one at the VA said anything. He added that he discovered it in 2008, when he was able to access his medical records online.

Recently, Slater sought emergency medical treatment for what he says was renal failure. According to Slater, the VA took three hours to hydrate him and five hours to get him into a room.

The VA wouldn't comment on specific cases. But in a statement to CNBC, it said it is "deeply committed to providing the quality care and benefits our Nation's Veterans have earned and deserve. VA welcomes recommendations of the Office of Special Counsel as an opportunity to evaluate our programs and identify areas for improvement. ... Providing quality care to our Veterans remains our top priority. All employees are expected to help VA achieve its mission of providing Veterans the highest quality care possible. The Medical Center Director and other facility leaders maintain an open door policy for Veterans to speak with them about their concerns, and the Director and Under Secretary for Health have personally addressed the comments provided by them on comment cards at an April town hall meeting."

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By CNBC's Jennifer Schlesinger and Dina Gusovsky. Follow Schlesinger on Twitter @jennyanne211 and Gusovsky @DinaGusovsky.