“I dug through the data and I have different data than you have…What I understand from my visit and the documents I reviewed is…there was nothing in his file that suggested that this was a risk.” –U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, September 2016
Several years ago, our nation was appalled to learn that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees were encouraged to create secret waiting lists that stood between veterans and the care they deserved. Veterans died waiting for care because of deceptive practices at the VA, and at that point, I called for the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. At the time, I didn’t think things at the agency could get any worse. But, I now know I was wrong.
Unfortunately, what took place at the VA’s Leavenworth, Kansas-based Eastern Kansas Health Care System is one of the worst examples of how the VA has failed veterans. In this instance, the VA hired physician assistant Mark Wisner, who was previously convicted of a lewd act, continued credentialing him for patient care every two years, and kept him on their payroll for more than a month after he admitted to preying on, assaulting and abusing vulnerable veterans. While the VA regrets what occurred, I’m frustrated now-VA Secretary Bob McDonald doesn’t seem to share my sense of urgency about investigating this situation to make certain this never happens again.
When I learned of the accusations of misconduct against Mr. Wisner, I immediately got in touch with local VA leadership to get answers. On Sept. 2, 2016, I took my concerns all the way up the ladder to Secretary McDonald requesting answers to 22 pointed questions. I sent him publicly available court filings that include sworn testimony from the VA Office of Inspector General’s special agent who interviewed Mr. Wisner. The next week, I asked one of the VA’s top health officials several of the same questions during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Hearing. In the first instance, all of the “different data” my office has collected was shared with the VA and, in the second, my concerns were clearly and publicly articulated to Sec. McDonald’s staff. And yet on Sept. 14, 2016, when I had an opportunity to publicly question the secretary about this case, I was dismayed to hear him say that “nothing in [Wisner’s] file suggested that this was a risk.” Now, more than a month later, I hope the secretary will respond to the questions that I and many veterans have about this case.
The failures aren’t limited to what VA ought to have known prior to hiring Wisner – they extend to how they handled what they did know. Even a cursory examination of the case reveals that more than a month passed between when Wisner admitted his crimes and when he voluntarily resigned. The moment a VA employee admits to abusing a patient, a client, or a coworker should be the moment their paycheck ends. Grounds for immediate termination clearly existed and yet Mr. Wisner remained a VA employee another 37 days. Only when Wisner tendered his own resignation did he cease work at the VA.
I do not doubt Sec. McDonald’s claim that he had “different data” than me and others following the case; but, what is so troublesome is that he felt the data they had was sufficient – that the VA had thoroughly investigated the situation and there was no risk. The VA’s top executive was unable to answer any questions with substance and put the minds of veterans at ease. His inability to address this situation gives little confidence to Congress and more importantly to veterans who are being asked to trust the agency that failed to protect them.
And, if I am working with all possible channels to gather information as to how this could have happened, shouldn’t we be able to reasonably expect the VA to do the same? It is unacceptable that Wisner’s criminal past – a glaring red flag – was missed. When the consequences of that mistake are as grave as these violent crimes, how can we tolerate it again and again?
Veterans are upset. Firing this individual could have brought a small measure of justice for his victims – and yet the VA failed to do even that. Although Wisner is beyond the VA’s reach, he is not beyond the reach of Congress. I have introduced legislation that would reduce the pension of employees who are convicted of a violent crime against a veteran. Why should an individual who sexually abused veterans receive the same benefits as the thousands of VA employees who honorably serve them?
The VA’s lack of urgency and interest in addressing this situation shortchanges our nation’s heroes and the hardworking men and women who serve them every day at the VA. I encourage any veteran who has had an experience they would like to share confidentially to contact my Olathe office at (913) 393-0711.