Salem VA latest agency misstep as new report cites missing items worth $1.7M

July 23, 2015
by Thomas Dworetzky, Contributing Reporter
The VA is in the news again — and not in a good way — as another management issue has surfaced for the problem-plagued agency. This time it comes after an 8-month investigation by a local news station uncovered poor tracking of over 22,000 pieces of equipment at its Salem Medical Center in Virginia, where more than $1.7 million worth of items apparently went missing during the last 5 years at the 225-acre facility.

Some of the largest things that were lost included a $26,555 lighting assembly the auditorium and stage reported lost in 2012, and a $75,700 portable ultrasound unit that disappeared in 2013. More than 1,100 separate items were unaccounted for, according to a report by station WSLS.

“It’s more of a management situation, that they know what’s going on. It’s just things aren’t being done about it,” an anonymous VA employee told the station on camera, face and voice disguised to prevent identification. “Sometimes there’s a priority to look for it and sometimes there’s not a priority to look for it.”

The employee added that the process for securing items was also less than perfect, noting, “there are quite a few things [in] these areas that are not locked properly or locked correctly.”

Virginia lawmakers responded immediately to the latest VA flap. "Any allegations of lax security and misuse of taxpayer dollars at the Salem VA must be taken seriously. It is imperative that our veterans receive high quality, accessible care in a safe environment, and I am greatly concerned about these allegations and their potential impact on our local veterans. The Veterans Administration must be held accountable to both the veterans who have bravely served our nation as well as American taxpayers. My office stands ready to assist in this effort as the House of Representatives continues to demand accountability from the VA,” Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R) told the station.

Virginia Senator Mark Warner's (D) spokeperson echoed those views, adding that the Senator is aware of the concerns and his office has already reached out to the Salem VA, adding that, "the VA has a responsibility to ensure that there are adequate controls in place to properly track inventory, and that employees have a safe process for pointing out waste, fraud or abuse if and when it occurs.”

Likewise, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine's (D) spokesperson told the stations that "Senator Kaine believes accountability and transparency at the VA are critical issues. Our office has asked the VA for more information on the reports of missing items and security issues.”

Theft, however, while serious, isn't necessarily the biggest problem that the station uncovered. It's the poor record keeping by the VA facility. Stuff just gets misplaced, and stored in a disorganized fashion.

An anonymous source also told the station that he had found patient records in boxes, furniture and medical equipment stashed haphazardly on floors and in rooms, including the bathroom.

When confronted by the news crew about the state of security at the facility, its Chief Logistics Officer James Kelly said when something is not accounted for on the annual inventory a team is sent to look for missing items – and that the issue "is always on our radar.”

The team's suggestions about ways to ensure that such a problem doesn't reoccur after its investigation are also sent to higher command.

The news team found that some things reported missing, like a pair of hospital beds in 2014, had actually been traded in, but the records never changed to reflect it.

In fact, after being confronted about potentially missing items by the station, Kelly actually determined that, “by item count we were able to locate about 50 percent of each one of those in each respective year.”

Kelly told the station, that the inaccurate official records were "concerning." He added that thanks to the light shone on the Salem VA issues with tracking items, he would be looking into training employees more and making possible process changes to ensure the records were kept properly in the future.

But the disguised, anonymous employee had less hope for change, telling the station, “the people who are running VA, they know this and for some reason are allowed to continue this behavior. I don’t believe it’ll stop until multiple agencies go in and investigate VA.”