Taxpayers are paying millions for VA hospitals to keep health care providers with questionable records on paid leave for years, a Clarion-Ledger investigation has found.
In 2014 alone, 2,560 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs spent at least one month on paid leave (some the entire year), costing taxpayers $23 million -- more than any other federal agency.
"Because of the federal government's dysfunctional civil service laws that put the job security of bureaucrats ahead of the safety of veterans, the VA doesn't have the ability to adequately discipline most misbehaving employees," said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "As a result, the department's problems don't get fixed. They fester, as problem employees are either paid to do nothing, shuffled around or not dealt with at all."
VA Secretary Robert McDonald acknowledged employees remain on paid leave too long.
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"Originally, administrative leave was designed to take people out of system while they were being investigated so they didn't create adversity or harm," he said.
He said his agency is streamlining the process so employees can be disciplined more quickly.
At the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, two surgeons, whose annual salaries total more a half million, have been on paid leave more than two years. They count against the Jackson VA's budget, but veterans receive no care from them.
Retired Maj. Gen. Erik Hearon, former assistant adjutant general and commander of the Mississippi Air National Guard, said veterans are hurt by this because they can't see these surgeons and taxpayers are hurt by this because they have to pay for veterans to receive care elsewhere.
Taxpayers have footed the bill for the following:
-- Dr. Daniel K. Kim, a 59-year-old ophthalmologist, is still employed at the Jackson VA, despite a World War II veteran winding up blind when Kim performed a routine cosmetic surgery in 2006. The VA denied any wrongdoing, calling it a medical mystery. In 1997, a patient of his, Judy Loveless, died during routine cosmetic surgery in a Georgia clinic. Charged with forging her consent form, Kim surrendered his Georgia medical license and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. He has denied doing anything wrong in either case. Taxpayers continue to pay his more than $190,000 in annual base pay. These days, he is working at the Jackson VA out of an office for facilities management, which handles housekeeping, safety, maintenance and other duties.
-- Frederick Kevin Harris, a nurse's aide, is still employed at the VA Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, despite being charged with manslaughter, accused of beating to death a 70-year-old military veteran in March 2013. Despite the criminal charge, the VA concluded he is not at fault. He continues to draw his $36,902 in base pay and has reportedly been allowed at times to treat patients.
-- Dr. Jose M. Bejar, a neurologist with the Kansas VA in Topeka, pocketed more than $330,000 from taxpayers while he was on paid leave for two years after five female veterans filed sexual misconduct charges against him in 2011. He finally pleaded no contest in 2013 to aggravated sexual battery, "conducting inappropriate pelvic and breast examinations on patients." After that, he surrendered his medical license and registered as a sex offender.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned the VA's record on paid leave, pointing out the agency kept 46 employees on paid leave for more than a year.
He and other senators have introduced legislation in hopes of curbing that abuse by the VA and other federal agencies.
"There's a wild West environment among agencies on paid administrative leave," said Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Some agencies use it too much, and the taxpayers get short-changed."
He said such paid leave "shouldn't be a crutch for management to avoid making tough personnel decisions or a club for wrongdoers to use against whistleblowers."
Some on paid leave have taken the VA to court.
On July 25, 2013, the Jackson VA suspended neurosurgeon Dr. Mohamed Eleraky from performing any more surgeries at the Jackson VA. Nine months later, the hospital suspended him from seeing any more patients.
He is now suing the Jackson VA, saying the hospital has failed to give him a fair hearing. But the lawsuit gives no reason why he was suspended.
Taxpayers continue to pay his more than $329,000 in annual base pay.
His lawyer, Whitman Johnson III of Flowood, would not comment.
The VA secretary said, in the past, the VA relied on the inspector general's office to do investigations and "were told to stay out of the way."
Now, he said, "we are starting our own investigations, not putting people on administrative leave but putting them on another job."