(Photo: John Hart, AP)


JACKSON, Miss. — Taxpayers are paying millions of dollars 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, costing taxpayers $23 million — more than any other federal agency. Some were off the entire year.

“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 Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “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.

“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 here, 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.

Frederick Kevin Harris of Alexandria, La. (Photo: Rapides Parish (La.) Sheriff's Office)

Retired Maj. Gen. Erik Hearon, former assistant adjutant general and commander of the Mississippi Air National Guard, said veterans are hurt because they can’t see these surgeons. Taxpayers are hurt because they have to pay for veterans to receive care elsewhere.

Taxpayers have footed the bill in these cases:

• Dr. Daniel K. Kim, a 59-year-old ophthalmologist, still is 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.

• Frederick Kevin Harris, a nurse’s aide, still is employed at the VA hospital in Alexandria, La., after being accused of beating to death a 70-year-old military veteran in March 2013. He was charged with manslaughter.

Dr. Jose Maria Bejar of Topeka, Kan. (Photo: Kansas Public Offender Registry)

• 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 was not required to pay it back when he pleaded no contest to aggravated sexual battery two years later, 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.

Paid leave “shouldn’t be a crutch for management to avoid making tough personnel decisions or a club for wrongdoers to use against whistleblowers,” he said.

Some on paid leave have taken the VA to court.

On July 25, 2013, the Jackson VA suspended neurosurgeon Dr. Mohamed Eleraky. Nine months later, the hospital suspended him from seeing any more patients.

He is now suing, saying the hospital has failed to give him a fair hearing. His lawsuit gives no reason for his suspension, and taxpayers continue to pay his more than $329,000 in annual base pay.

His lawyer, Whitman Johnson III of Flowood, would not comment.

Rocky road to reform

When McDonald took over as VA secretary in mid-2014, he promised to turn the agency around, getting rid of bad employees, including those involved in falsifying documents and manipulating wait times at VA hospitals.

When he appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Feb. 15, 2015, he said 900 employees had been “fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.”

The Washington Post challenged his numbers, saying the actual number fired in the scandal at that time was eight.

In August, McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee he had terminated more than 140,000 of the more 340,000 VA employees — only to correct himself and say only 1,800 had been fired, then 1,755, then 755.

“You can't fire your way to excellence.”

Robert McDonald, Department of Veterans Affairs

“Isn’t it true it’s almost impossible for you to fire somebody under current law?” asked Johnny Isakson, chairman of the committee.

McDonald said it’s easier to fire employees in the private sector.

“You can buy them out. You can’t do that in the public sector,” he said.

But VA officials paid Rebecca Wiley, director of the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center, more than $76,000 when she retired in 2013 — a week after Congress began examining nine preventable patient deaths in Augusta and Columbia, Ga.

On Jan. 21, McDonald disputed accusations that too few VA employees have been fired since he took over.

“You can't fire your way to excellence,” he said. This time, he said 2,600 VA employees had been fired.

In 2014, Congress passed a bill that made it easier to fire VA employees guilty of misconduct or poor performance, but some have remained on the payroll.

The director of the troubled regional benefits office in Reno, Nev., which handled disability applications, did such a lousy job that VA officials sent him home for a year — with pay.

But rather than fire him, VA officials “created a special job for him where he can telework from Reno to be an adviser to somebody here in Washington,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said in a November hearing. “It was a totally created job.”

In 2010, Jed Fillingim, assistant director for the Jackson VA, was involved in a fatal drunken-driving accident in a Dallas suburb that killed Amy Wheat, a 38-year-old nurse recruiter for the Jackson VA. Despite the death, police in Addison, Texas, failed to administer a blood-alcohol test on him until six hours later; by then he tested at 0.03, less than the legal limit.

He resigned in November 2010. Months later, the VA hired him back.

“It’s just not right. They should fire him," Wheat’s mother, Annette Berry, told NBC News. "There’s been no criminal punishment, no VA punishment.”

In 2014, Fillingim made $107,434 at the VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., plus a $900 performance bonus. VA officials say he is no longer employed there.

Since 2000, the VA has paid out more than $1.1 billion to veterans and their families for medical malpractice.

Then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., concluded in his 2014 report that more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of the VA’s misconduct in the past decade.

“Too many men and women who bravely fought for our freedom are losing their lives, not at the hands of terrorists or enemy combatants, but from friendly fire in the form of medical malpractice and neglect by the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he wrote.

Pay is a problem

Hiring and keeping qualified physicians can be difficult on VA pay, past and present VA doctors say.

The low pay discourages physicians from seeking a lifelong career of public service when they can earn twice as much in the private sector, said Dr. Randy Easterling, president of the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure.

Dr. Timothy Trotter, who worked 13 years as chief of thoracic surgery at the VA Hospital in Oklahoma City, said some physicians who wind up at the VA have been sued repeatedly or can’t find work elsewhere.

Before leaving for a week in 2012, he warned administrators against letting one of his surgeons operate alone. While he was gone, the surgeon operated, and a patient died.

A week later, the surgeon was allowed to operate again, and this time, Trotter said he had to assist after the surgeon stitched together two of the three arteries to the heart.

After this, the cardiopulmonary bypass machine operator refused to work with the surgeon, and the surgeon left the VA, Trotter said.

“On one hand, you might say people should get a new start, but in reality, somebody should take their cello away,” Trotter said. “They shouldn’t be playing.”

He would like to see the government make veterans’ health care part of the Medicareprogram.

“It’s a system already in effect, it is already policed like all of health care since it is privatized, more or less, and it is universally accessible everywhere.”

Follow Jerry Mitchell on Twitter: @JMitchellNews

By the numbers

Veterans Affairs employees on paid administrative leave in 2014:

• 1 to 3 months: 2,277

• 3 to 6 months: 200

• 6 to 9 months: 53

• 9 to 12 months: 30

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs