In the News
Kanas City Star | Jonathan Shorman and Bryan Lowry
As the new leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs toured VA hospitals across Kansas last week, he confronted the continuing fallout from a sexual abuse scandal in the state that tarnished the agency.
Court judgments ordering millions in payments are still coming in against the VA four years after the perpetrator went to prison. And Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas will soon introduce legislation aimed at preventing future misconduct.
Mark Wisner, a former physician assistant at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, was sentenced to 15 years and seven months in prison for multiple convictions of sexual battery and other sexual offenses after a group of veterans testified that he had molested them during medical exams during his tenure at the facility from 2008 to 2014.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough toured Kansas on Thursday and Friday, making stops in Wichita, Emporia, Junction City, Topeka and Leavenworth, the location where Wisner’s crimes took place against more than 100 victims.
“Your characterization of the incidences is precisely correct — horrifying. And we have zero tolerance for such,” McDonough told The Star Thursday during his Topeka visit.
The case spurred dozens of lawsuits. Eighty-two veterans settled for a shared sum of $7 million in 2019.
In November, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree awarded two veterans a combined sum of more than $2 million in separate decisions after they testified they were subjected to unnecessary genital exams by Wisner as patients at the VA.
In January, the same federal judge awarded another veteran $1 million after finding the VA “wholly failed to comply” with its reporting and tracking policy for sexual misconduct allegations.
McDonough, who served as chief of staff for former President Barack Obama, was confirmed as the VA secretary in February, roughly three weeks after Crabtree’s latest ruling.
McDonough said the department has taken steps to prevent similar cases from taking place.
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“We have very important safeguards and checks in place,” McDonough said, adding that the VA also has an independent inspector general who can investigate whistleblower complaints.
McDonough is the first member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Kansas since the new administration took office.
He was accompanied throughout his trip by Moran, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which has oversight of his department. For his part, Moran doesn’t believe Congress or the department have fully responded to the matter.
“My view is that I’m not yet satisfied that everything that can be done legislatively or administratively has been or is being done,” Moran said.
“And it’s the horrific nature of the crimes that were committed in Kansas that are worthy of more attention and will continue to receive them,” Moran said. “Part of it, as the secretary said, is cultural. We need to make certain whoever works at the VA, really anybody in society who sees this kind of behavior occurring, reports it and then VA leadership responds by removing that person from any kind of contact with patients.”
Moran plans to introduce legislation as early as this week that would increase the credentialing and performance monitoring standards in the VA in hopes of preventing other cases of medical malpractice, sexual abuse and other wrongdoing.
Sarah Feldman, the spokeswoman for Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Tester “looks forward to working with Senator Moran to ensure all veterans seeking care at VA facilities are safe and treated with the respect they deserve.”
The bill’s focus is broader than just the Kansas case.
Moran’s office pointed to wrongful death and malpractice cases around the country. It also pointed to a West Virginia case where an unlicensed nursing assistant at a VA facility was convicted in 2020 of murdering seven patients and attempting to murder an eighth with an unnecessary insulin injection.
Moran’s bill would require the VA to conduct “ongoing, retrospective and comprehensive monitoring of the performance and quality of the health care delivered by each health care professional,” according to a bill summary shared by Moran’s office.
The bill would require substantiated concerns to be reported to state licensing bodies and the National Provider Data Bank, a national database that documents malpractice cases and other adverse information about providers. It would also require some VA employees to hold an active registration with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that serves as a watchdog for Congress, found that some VA facilities had failed to report information to the provider data bank and had also overlooked disqualifying information about employees available in the database.
“What we’re talking about is an individual comes to work for the VA while credentialed some place else but may have problems reported elsewhere,” Moran said.
Moran’s bill would also prohibit the VA from entering into legal settlements with employees that would require it “to conceal a serious medical error or lapse in clinical practice that constitutes a substantial failure to meet generally accepted standards of clinical practice as to raise reasonable concern for the safety of patients.”
Moran said that during the visit to the Leavenworth facility he asked a newly hired doctor who had moved from another state to tell him about the credentialing process she went through before being hired at the facility.
He said the person told him that she believed she was fully vetted.
“That’s encouraging to me,” Moran said, “but the circumstances we went through, no person and veteran ought to ever experience.”