VA fires DC hospital director as watchdog reveals more findings
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2017
WASHINGTON — The former director of the Washington VA Medical Center, demoted in April, was fired Friday “because he failed to provide effective leadership,” the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday.
The announcement came after the VA Office of Inspector General released more findings against former director Brian Hawkins, who was removed from his position in April after the inspector general found the hospital was putting veterans at “unnecessary risk.”
In a report shared with the VA in June and released publicly Tuesday, the inspector general wrote Hawkins had also broken VA policy by sending sensitive information to private email accounts belonging to him and to his wife. Inspectors found the emails while looking into whether director Hawkins had delayed an Administrative Investigative Board inquiry about thousands of dollars in employee bonuses given out without justification.
Though the inspector general found the investigation was delayed — hospital personnel didn’t respond in a timely way to requests for documents — the office did not confirm that Hawkins had purposefully impeded it. Inspectors did determine that Hawkins sent sensitive personnel information to his spouse – a violation of VA policy.
“In our review of Mr. Hawkins’ official VA email records, we uncovered a number of emails where he sent VA-sensitive information from his VA-assigned email account to his spouse’s, a non-VA employee, email account,” the report states. “Hawkins confirmed that he used his VA-assigned email account to send VA-sensitive information to his spouse on a number of occasions, but he could not recall the exact number of times he did.”
The emails found by the inspector general’s office go back to 2012 and include information about the investigation into employee bonuses, as well as personnel matters.
The inspector general’s office sent the findings to VA leadership with the recommendation they talk to VA lawyers. Dr. Poonam Alaigh, acting undersecretary for health, responded June 20 that VA leadership would “determine the appropriate adverse action to take, if any, against Mr. Hawkins.”
The VA said Tuesday they officially fired Hawkins on July 28.
“This action underscores VA’s commitment to holding all employees accountable if they fail to do their jobs or live up to VA’s values,” the VA said in a statement.
Hawkins was medical director of the hospital from 2011 until he was demoted and replaced in April. At the time, in an unprecedented move, Inspector General Michael Missal released an interim report revealing supply shortages and dirty conditions that posed a risk to patient safety, as well as cultural problems within the facility. The issues had persisted since at least 2014.
VA Secretary David Shulkin named one of his advisers, retired Army Col. Lawrence Connell, as Hawkins’ replacement.
Connell has started a hiring initiative for nurses and logistics, prosthetics and mental health personnel. According to the VA statement Tuesday, 19 of 33 open positions in logistics have been filled in the past three months, as well as 10 of 14 vacancies in sterile processing. The hospital has also selected 44 nurses to hire.
The inspector general received documentation this spring showing 27,494 items worth about $155 million in supplies in equipment in the past year was not inventoried at the hospital. In one document, VA headquarters staff referenced a 100,000-square-foot warehouse full of non-inventoried supplies totaling $15 million, the report states.
The VA said Tuesday the supply areas have been fully inventoried and reorganized, and more than 2,700 medical instruments were ordered. The hospital is also monitoring supplies daily to avoid surprise shortages, which was a problem.
The DC hospital plans to add 117 patient parking spaces to improve access, according to the statement. It’s also holding regular town hall-style meetings and employee recognition ceremonies “to encourage open communication,” the VA said.