Veterans

VA fires embattled Louisiana director amid scandal, secret wait lists

The director of the beleaguered Shreveport VA hospital in Louisiana has been fired following a three-year tenure filled with scandal -- including accusations of covering up a secret wait-list, creating severe staffing shortages and refusing to buy essentials like vital signs machines, linens or mattresses.

Toby Mathew, who became director of Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in June 2014, was fired on April 13 due to “charges related to general misconduct, and failure to follow policy and provide effective oversight of the Center's credentialing and privileging program,” said an internal VA memo obtained by Fox News.

This is one of the highest-profile employee removals since Secretary Eric Shinseki left in May 2014 following news of the massive wait-list scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital. Last week, President Trump signed an executive order creating an office within the VA to make it easier to fire bad employees – an issue that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., had championed for several years. Trump also fired two employees in the Caribbean on his second day in office.

Mathew could not be reached for comment.

The VA confirmed his removal in a brief statement: “Toby Mathew was removed from employment as director of the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La., effective April 13, and he is no longer at VA.”

Asked for comment, White House spokesman Ninio Fetalvo referred only to the executive order to improve accountability, calling it “another step in the president's plans to ensure our nation's bravest have the care they deserve.”

Overton Brooks started taking hits following an October 2014 report that patients routinely went days without sheets, pajamas or proper toiletries while the hospital spent millions on new furniture, TVs and solar panels.

Next came the story of social worker Shea Wilkes, who discovered a secret wait-list in 2013 that had 2,700 names, including 37 people who had died awaiting care. He pushed the VA inspector general to investigate, but instead the agency made Wilkes the target of a criminal investigation that lasted a year. It ended only after the Office of Special Counsel became involved. Mathew, who was director during that time, denied that a wait-list existed.

Wilkes went on to become a high-profile advocate for whistle-blowers and has testified on Capitol Hill.

Spurred on by Wilkes' example, a high-ranking doctor wrote an exhaustive 16-page report dated Sept. 2, 2016 addressed to then-secretary Bob McDonald, the VA inspector general and two members of Congress. The report, reviewed by Fox News, said Mathew severely impacted the careers of 55 employees and specifically alleged that Mathew had “a constant pattern of bullying, intimidation, discrimination, harassment and retaliation” against staff, which violated policies and affecting patient health.

“Nursing service has had critical positions vacant during the 2-year tenure of Toby Mathew with vacancy rates as high as 50 percent for nurse assistants and constant 30 percent for registered nurses,” the report said. “He refused to ... fill the vacancies as requested. Toby Mathew brought in consultants paying as much as $10,500/month (more than most of our physicians make) for projects that did not help us.”

A lack of nurses had repercussions in the operating rooms, where unsterile items allegedly were found on a daily basis.

“The surgical teams are outraged by the absolute failure of leadership to address and improve the conditions ... Surgeries are being delayed or canceled or surgeons are forced to use alternate instrument sets,” the report said.

Elsewhere in the hospital, nurses lacked enough vital signs machines for every patient and mattresses allegedly were so worn out that patients were lying on bed frames. They allegedly were only replaced when bedsores erupted. Despite this, Mathew bought new flat-screen TVs for the director's conference room, the report said.

For a total of two weeks during October and November 2016, the VA's Office of Accountability Review (OAR) -- which was implemented in 2015 to oversee complaints of top-level employees -- sent several investigators to Overton Brooks who settled into an office a few doors down from Wilkes' office.

“I saw all kinds of people coming and going from that office,” Wilkes said. “They were talking to everybody from all levels” of the hospital.

The doctor who wrote the report had asked for Mathew's removal while the investigation was under way. This didn't happen and on Jan. 4, a letter was sent to McDonald demanding to know why Mathew was still at work.

​"You will be held responsible, whether in the Legislature, the courts or the media, for all that has happened here," the letter said. "YOU are responsible for all the failures, the misconduct, the lack of leadership and the mismanagement -- WHICH HAS CONTINUED TO THIS DAY."

A month later, ​Mathew was reassigned to a VA division office to await the outcome of an investigation. He worked there until he was fired. 

​On April 14​, select employees received the memo announcing the news and instructing them to preserve any electronic evidence pertaining to their cases because of a “litigation hold.” 

Wilkes said there’s “no doubt that the media attention” on the hospital’s situation helped.

“We were all hoping that Trump would make an example of him,” Wilkes said of Mathew. “They don’t fire anybody here, but they just canned this guy.”

Tori Richards is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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