An Illinois Veterans Affairs hospital already under fire for excessive wait times, festering black mold and kitchen cockroaches faces a new shame – the bodies of dead patients left unclaimed in the morgue for up to two months without proper burial, whistleblower documents allege.
The whistleblower, whose identity is not being revealed for fear of retaliation, complained last month to the VA’s inspector general about the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital’s handling of veterans’ remains in cases where families have not come forward to claim the body. The complaint singled out Christopher Wirtjes, chief of Patient Administrative Services, saying “The Chief of PAS has the funds available, yet has no sense of urgency to lay the veteran to rest.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., whose office also received the complaint along with emails, is now calling for Wirtjes’ firing and in a statement, slammed the hospital – located in the Western suburbs of Chicago -- over its recent history of controversies.
“Hines VA -- the hospital that has been overrun with cockroaches and mold and left vets waiting for care for months on secret wait lists, has reached a new low in the treatment of our veterans,” Kirk told FoxNews.com. “We now have reports of bodies being left to decompose in the morgue for months on end.”
The whistleblower, who has spoken with Kirk’s office, described a “horrible issue” at the hospital in the letter to the IG: “Some veteran’s remains have been left in our hospital morgue for 45 days or more until they are stacked to capacity at times.”
On at least one occasion, a body had liquefied and the bag burst when staff had attempted to move it, said Alissa McCurley, Kirk’s deputy chief of staff.
Kirk talked to VA Secretary Bob McDonald last week in Washington and demanded the firing of Wirtjes, whom the Office of Special Counsel determined had orchestrated a secret wait list that was exposed by another whistleblower in 2014. McDonald was noncommittal, Kirk said.
Internal VA emails chronicle how a frustrated Hines clerk attempted to obtain permission from Wirtjes for burial of unclaimed veterans on three occasions.
The first email chain began on Dec. 7, 2015.
“[There is] an invoice for an unclaimed veteran that has been here for over 30 days. Please approve for burial at Abraham Lincoln,” the clerk wrote to Wirtjes and several others.
Three days later, the clerk wrote again: “Approval of unclaimed Vet D?? Status?”
On Dec. 23, the clerk wrote to human resources: “Any further on my poor unclaimed? I WILL file a police report, but I hate doing that…”
Emails from June 14, 2016 and Aug. 29, 2016 state that two different veterans languished in the morgue for a month or more.
A manager, who is the chief of inpatient and processing, discussed the dilemma of how a local mortuary would be paid for accepting a veteran’s body because the family did not have the money for a burial. He said he would “try to figure it out with the funeral home. … At least he would be laid to rest.”
“I have not heard anything as to the approval for funeral home pick up. It will be a month tomorrow,” the clerk responded.
Cook County policy suggests embalming three days after death “at the discretion of the medical examiner.” Often, the body will be embalmed and returned to a freezer for up to a month while the medical examiner attempts to locate family members. Unclaimed bodies are then buried in a county cemetery. Veterans are interred in a national military cemetery within 60 days.
However, Hines does not employ medical examiners or embalmers to properly care for decedents locked in their freezer for 30 days or more, McCurley said.
Wirtjes could not be reached for comment despite inquiries to him, his office and a VA center spokesman. But the spokesman for the hospital, Rick Fox, disputed the allegations and said Hines was following all laws:
“We take whistleblower allegations very seriously and absolutely agree that all of our veterans deserve dignity and respect, in life and in death. While our investigation into this matter is still ongoing, we have found allegations related to consistent problems with dignified and timely burials to be unsubstantiated. However, we have taken this opportunity to review our policies and procedures and are currently working to improve them.”
Staff from the VA’s Office of Medical Inspector were at the hospital conducting an investigation Monday afternoon, but it’s unclear what they found, McCurley said.
Asked about the allegations, the IG office said: "The OIG doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigations."
Kirk, chairman of the Appropriations Committee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, last week introduced a bill titled Respectful Interment for Passing Veterans Act which requires “expeditious and respectful provision of burial and funeral services for indigent, deceased veterans and remains of deceased veterans that are unclaimed.”
Earlier this year, Kirk authored a bill requiring VA kitchens to undergo regular health inspections after Hines whistleblowers repeatedly documented cockroaches served in food. The VA system currently has no required kitchen health inspections from an outside entity.
In September 2015, veterans from Hines’ long-term care facility complained of a black mold infestation that had gone unchecked.
Hines is planning on demolishing the kitchen in an effort to destroy the roaches and will renovate the long-term care facility within 45 days, the spokesperson said.
Kirk sent a two-page letter to the secretary Wednesday to press for Wirtjes’ firing. A 2014 law created after the VA wait list scandal gave McDonald the power to fire civil service employees engaged in misconduct.
“If manipulating scheduling wait times putting veterans’ health at risk and failing to allow the burial of unclaimed veterans’ remains is not misconduct, then I ask you what is,” Kirk wrote.
UPDATE – After the publication of this article, the VA issued the following statement:
“Staff at Hines VA Hospital conducted a fact-finding investigation that shows over the last two years, the vast majority - more than 95 percent - of Veterans’ remains are being respectfully handled within seven days, and more than 99 percent within 30 days. Additionally, VA’s Office of Medical Inspector (OMI) spent significant time at the facility last week interviewing employees and reviewing related materials. And while we are awaiting OMI’s final report, we remain confident that our Veterans have been receiving dignified and timely burials.”