MIAMI — As a crisis engulfs the Department of Veterans Affairs over allegations of wrongdoing at VA medical centers across the country, Miami’s VA Hospital has come under fire from one of its own: a longtime employee and police detective, who alleges that some patients are dealing drugs, others are being physically abused — and administrators are covering up the problems.
Thomas Fiore, a VA law enforcement officer who was reassigned to clerical duties in February, said he has repeatedly reported to superiors incidents of drug dealing among patients, evidence of physical abuse of patients, and other potential crimes.
In allegations first reported by WFOR-CBS 4 this week, Fiore said that instead of being allowed to investigate these incidents as a VA detective, he was re-assigned to a clerical position within the hospital’s medical administration department as retaliation.
“I was reassigned because I continued to bring things up to the director, and he continued to ignore it,’’ Fiore, 38, said. “They just needed to get rid of me.’’
Fiore fears continued retaliation for speaking out, and he has hired an attorney to represent him. “There’s not a bone in my body that is not scared,’’ he said.
But he felt compelled to come forward after a federal report in March revealed that the residential drug abuse rehabilitation program at the Miami VA Hospital failed to monitor patients, provide sufficient staff, control access to the facility or even curb illicit drug use among patients — culminating with the June 2013 death of Nicholas Todd Cutter, a 27-year-old Iraq combat veteran who overdosed on cocaine and heroin one week before he was scheduled to graduate from the program.
“Quite honestly,’’ Fiore said, “his death could have been prevented.’’
The Miami VA declined the Herald’s request to interview the VA administrator, Paul Russo, and the chief of staff, Vincent DeGennaro.
Shane Suzuki, a public affairs officer for the Miami VA Healthcare System, said Fiore’s allegations have no evidence to substantiate them.
“Miami VA leadership has every intent of holding employees who mistreat our veterans accountable for their actions,’’ Suzuki said in a written statement. “We will fully investigate any allegations that we do anything less than treat our veterans with the respect and honor they have earned.’’
But Fiore insists he often tried to alert his superiors of drug dealing among patients, patient abuse and prescription drugs missing from the hospital pharmacy, and that Miami VA administrators thwarted his efforts to investigate or ignored the reports altogether.
“Many times that I’ve sent emails,’’ he said, “they won’t respond to them, as if they didn’t get them.’’
Fiore said drug dealing often takes place among patients who sell the prescriptions they have filled at the VA pharmacy for oxycodone and other pain medications.
“A majority of that drug dealing was what they were getting from the VA,’’ he said. “It was the prescription drugs.’’
Fiore said his reports of discrepancies and missing prescription drugs at the VA pharmacy also went nowhere.
“I was told that the police reports were to stop,’’ he said, “and they would notify me if something important came up.’’
Suzuki said allegations of illicit drug deals are referred to the VA Office of Inspector General for “independent investigation.’’
He added that the Miami VA has a system in place to conduct inventories and audits of prescription drugs, and that Miami VA police have investigated 12 controlled substance discrepancies since January 2013.
Fiore’s statements come on the heels of allegations of wrongdoing at VA hospitals in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he expects VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to provide him with results of an inquiry into claims by VA employees that patients face excessive wait times for care and that secret lists were used to cover up the delays.
Fiore’s allegations are the latest public relations crisis for Miami’s system, whose administrator was removed in 2011 after more than 2,500 local veterans were told the colonoscopies they had there might have been performed with improperly cleaned equipment and potentially exposed them to infections.
The VA inspector general’s report, released in March, about Cutter’s overdose death refocused attention on the Miami center.
Fiore said other vets had reported to him that Cutter was using drugs while in the program, and that VA police only found out about the death by overhearing two nurses talking about it.
Fiore said the scene of Cutter’s death — a patient ward on the fifth floor of the hospital — should have been preserved as a crime scene so an investigation could be conducted.
Instead, he said, hospital officials had the area cleaned up, and Cutter’s personal possessions gathered for his relatives.
“The OIG didn’t get there until about six hours after the fact,’’ Fiore said, “and the room was already cleaned. The body was already bagged. There was no crime scene. There was no crime scene tape. People were going in and out of there because the police were never notified.’’
Suzuki, the VA spokesman, says nurses tried to revive Cutter. But after he was pronounced dead, “the nursing staff secured his belongings in anticipation of the family members’ arrival. Upon notification, Miami VA Police secured the scene, notified local authorities and the VA OIG Criminal Investigators who took jurisdiction over the case upon their arrival.’’
Cutter’s mother, Mary Zielinski said Miami VA administrators never told her how her son died.
Instead, Zielinski learned of her son’s cause of death after WFOR-CBS 4 reporter Jim DeFede presented her with the OIG report, which did not name the dead soldier.
Zielinski said a Miami VA representative — she does not remember whom — called her at home in Boynton Beach on the morning of June 1, 2013, to tell her that her son had died.
“When the person called me, they told me that the nurses were making rounds and that they tried to do CPR on Nick,’’ she said, “because they thought he had choked from something, and that they were unable to revive him and he passed away.”
She said the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office told her the following day that there was no evidence of Cutter having choked to death.
“The coroner said there was nothing in his airway at all,’’ Zielinski said. But the coroner couldn’t tell her the cause of death, she said, because the toxicology test results were not complete.
She said VA administrators told her an internal investigation would be conducted to determine his cause of death, but that no one ever followed up.
“I had been waiting,’’ she said, “because I knew they were doing an investigation on it, but nobody contacted me to tell me the investigation ended, or any results had come in or anything.’’
Suzuki said Cutter’s death was independently investigated by the VA inspector general.
For Zielinski, the cause of her son’s death remains a mystery despite the investigative findings.
Zielinski said her son returned from deployment in 2010. A combat engineer with the rank of private in the Army, Cutter saw frequent combat, Zielinski said, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and severe back pain.
She took charge of her son’s healthcare, she said, and helped Cutter enroll in the Miami VA’s residential drug abuse rehabilitation program because his physicians said it was the best treatment program available. She’s upset that the VA never told her about her son’s known drug abuse, as Fiore has alleged, so she could seek help at a private facility.
Zielinski said when she arrived at the Miami VA, staff members handed over her son’s belongings in trash bags.
After her story aired on WFOR-CBS 4, Zielinski said, she received a handwritten apology letter from the Miami VA administrator, Russo.
Zielinski said she buried her son in Illinois in a family plot last June, but that the VA has yet to provide a headstone.
Zielinski said she has not communicated with anyone from the Miami VA since learning about her son’s cause of death — and she’s not sure that she wants to hear from them.
“Even if they called and told me the truth,’’ she said, “I don’t know that I can believe it. And with everything going on with the VA hiding things and not telling people what’s going on and moving appointments, to me the VA needs a lot of help.’’