One magical Bronx VA hospital made $54M disappear

When Robert McDonald took over as the head of Veterans Affairs last year, I seem to recall a fair deal of confidence being expressed that the scandal plagued embarrassment of a department was on the road to recovery. And to be fair, some things have improved. There has been more transparency and plenty of records being turned over to both Congress and the media. But some of their major woes still remain. As of April of this year, despite an extra $16B being funneled in, wait times for sick veterans have not significantly changed at some of the most troubled hospitals.


And then there’s this. At one hospital in the Bronx (and really… where else would it be) it appears that more than $54M in charges were run up on the government equivalent of credit cards in a two year period and the details look more than suspicious.

Employees in the purchasing department of a VA hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., had used government purchase cards like credit cards at least 2,000 times to buy prosthetic legs and arms for veterans.

Each time they swiped the cards, it was for $24,999. That was precisely one dollar below VA’s charging limit for purchase cards…

I know we’ve got a lot of seriously injured veterans to take care of and there should be no question about paying for their special needs. But one hospital had to handle two thousand prosthetic limbs for amputees in two years? Does that seem a bit high? Well, perhaps not. But those prosthetics tend to be custom jobs. I don’t want to sound overly suspicious here, but every one of them coming in at a price exactly one dollar below the maximum limit should be a giveaway, no?

But not to worry, I’m sure this can all be cleared up. Let’s just have a look at the purchasing records. What’s that you say? You lost them in a flood? Well damn the bad luck.

When word reached Congress about the $54,435,743 worth of prosthetics bought under such odd circumstances over two years — the subject of an inspector general investigation announced Monday — lawmakers demanded details. But they were told there was no documentation.

VA officials had prepared to tell Congress that the records had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, according to previously undisclosed records, until a senior adviser in the Secretary’s office pointed out that the timing was wrong and the excuse wouldn’t hold up…

VA officials had received an inquiry from Congress in September 2012 about the Bronx payments, but a letter signed by former secretary Eric Shinseki did not go out until July 2013. The agency had prepared to say that the records had been transferred to VA’s medical center in Manhattan, where they were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, documents obtained by The Post show.

But in reviewing the claim that the records had been destroyed, a senior adviser in Shinseki’s office was skeptical. “Gemma — this isn’t going to work,” the adviser wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Post.


So the records were lost in the storm at a time when they couldn’t possibly have been lost in that storm. I see.

This is yet another VA scandal story waiting to completely blow up once all of the investigations are complete. It would be nice to think we could write it off as one corrupt group of individuals at a single institution gaming the system (it is Brooklyn, after all) but I think there’s a bit too much history at this point to offer that sort of benefit of the doubt. And what makes it even worse – if such a thing is possible – is that this removes the entire “incompetence” aspect from the loop. The long wait times had some corruption involved because people were falsifying documents and lying about dates to avoid revealing how poorly they were doing their jobs. But assuming this turns out to be precisely what it looks like, this is nothing more than organized racketeering designed to rob the system under the guise of helping our wounded warriors.

Somebody will need to be going to jail over this. And McDonald needs to answer for a lot more than he has so far. The system is still obviously badly broken in terms of oversight if thieves are able to pick our pockets this easily for such vast sums of money.

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