Durham County

Durham VA bought $1.4M in medical equipment that sat unused in a warehouse for years

The Durham VA Medical Center
The Durham VA Medical Center

The Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center bought about $1.4 million worth of medical equipment that sat in an off-site warehouse for several years, according to a letter sent to the White House on Thursday.

An anonymous whistleblower's tip led to an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner sent the letter to President Donald Trump reporting his findings from an audit done in April 2017.

“Our veterans deserve the very best medical care, but when equipment sits unused in storage, the VA is wasting taxpayer resources,” Kerner said.

The whistleblower said the Durham VA bought a large amount of equipment, including $385,000 worth of anesthesia equipment purchased in 2014 that was never used.

The investigative team also uncovered another $1 million in new, unboxed equipment, including "vital signs machines, a sterilizer, dental chairs, a dental sink and cabinets."

The vital signs monitors were purchased to standardize the type of monitors used at all VA medical centers. They were needed at the time of the purchase but not deployed in the hospital because of a lack of logistical support and staff training. It was determined that several groups within the VA failed to adequately coordinate on an installation plan for the monitors.

This equipment had been "stored several years with no plan in place to put the equipment into use, or to place it at another VA facility" that needed it, according to the letter.

The whistleblower also said the hospital distributed long-expired bottled water in violation of the Veterans Health Administration Handbook.

DeAnne Seekins led the Durham VA Health Care System from June 2012 to last July when she was promoted to oversee the VA's Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network and Veterans Integrated Service Network based in Durham. She was responsible for strategic planning and the budget for the hospital, which grew from about $400 million to more than $750 million during her tenure.

Paul Crews was appointed director of the Durham VA Health Care System in March.

“We appreciate OSC’s review, which focuses mostly on events that occurred four to five years ago," Crews said. "As the special counsel notes in his letter, Durham VA has taken 'appropriate corrective actions' to address these issues. Responsible employees have been held accountable, the overwhelming majority of the equipment referenced by OSC is now in use and the items that have expired have been properly disposed."

This is not the first time a VA medical center has hoarded unused equipment and supplies.

In March, the D.C. VA Medical Center was found to have spent about $92 million on medical supplies from 2014-17 without "proper controls to ensure the purchases where necessary and cost-effective," according to a report from VA Inspector General Michael Missal.

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Employee disciplined

In response to the audit, the Durham VA instituted a plan to put all new, unused equipment to use within the facility or send it to another VA hospital, according to Kerner's letter. The VA also recommended a review of purchases to determine if there was a valid need for the equipment and that the facility was capable of using the equipment.

One hospital employee was admonished, the lowest of three disciplinary actions, for "poor management and oversight of Federal property, and for failing to properly dispose of expired water pursuant to VHA policy," according to the special counsel's letter.

Another allegation that was not substantiated was that the Durham VA did not properly account for approximately 900 equipment turn-ins from 2008-14 that employees should have initiated when they left employment or the equipment became outdated.

Investigators did, however, find "significant failures in the turn-in program" that they attributed to "employee/supervisory ownership and accountability." Records showed numerous instances where equipment had a "turned-in" status but no actual turn-in date was recorded.