That’s Crazy!!! – More Chronicles from the VA (CH 4)

Angry Wet ChickenHave you ever been so embarrassed by something that any mention seems to depress you?  I am in this position right now; the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) has released more investigation reports and analyses of the VA.  Analyses that should be cause for the most profound concern by congressional representatives, and instead, they act like nothing is wrong, nothing to see here, go away.  Well, I am too embarrassed to “go away,” and I demand action to clean house and curb this atrocious behavior!

Courage involves pain and is justly praised, for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant.” – Aristotle

Too often, I am left asking where the Federal Government Employees are and what their responsibility is in fraudulent schemes.  For example, we begin with a $50 Million scheme that had to have been suspicious to employees at Medicare, TRICARE, CHAMPVA, and many other health benefit programs.

  • Nicholas Defonte and Christopher Cirri, both of Toms River, New Jersey, and Pat Truglia of Parkland, Florida, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. Each defendant played a role in defrauding healthcare benefits by offering, paying, soliciting, and receiving kickbacks and bribes in exchange for completed doctors’ orders for durable medical equipment, specifically orthotic braces. The defendants then fraudulently billed Medicare, TRICARE, the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA), and other healthcare benefit programs. Cirri, Defonte, and their conspirators owned and operated multiple call centers where they obtained prescriptions for compound medications and other medical products reimbursable by federal and private healthcare benefit programs. The defendants caused losses to Medicare, TRICARE, and CHAMPVA of approximately $50 million.VA 3

Next, we see another case where Federal employees should have been aware, vocal, and the problems fixed before the scheme turned three years old.

  • Matthew Camera of Erie, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to violating federal drug laws. From January 2017 to June 2020, while employed as the pharmacy chief at the VA medical center in Erie, he unlawfully obtained multiple dosage units of hydrocodone and oxycodone from pill bottles awaiting delivery to VA patients. Sentencing is scheduled for March 22, 2022.
  • Michael Nolan of Tampa, Florida, and Richard Epstein, of Aurora, Colorado, were sentenced in a conspiracy to defraud two federal health benefit programs, Medicare and the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA). From October 2016 through April 2019, Epstein and Nolan ran a telemarketing company in Tampa called REMN Management LLC that targeted the elderly to generate thousands of medically unnecessary physicians’ orders for durable medical equipment and cancer genetic testing. Epstein and Nolan also created and operated Comprehensive Telcare LLC, a telemedicine company through which they illegally bribed physicians to sign the orders regardless of medical necessity. They then illegally sold the signed physicians’ orders to client-conspirators to support false and fraudulent claims submitted to Medicare and CHAMPVA. The conspiracy resulted in the submission of at least $134 million in fraudulent claims and approximately $29 million in payments. Nolan was sentenced to six years and six months in federal prison, followed by three years supervised release and was ordered to pay $2.1 million. Epstein was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison, followed by three years supervised release and was ordered to pay $3 million. The court ordered Nolan, Epstein, and other conspirators to pay over $29 million in restitution.
  • Twenty people, including the two founders of Hertel & Brown Physical & Aquatic Therapy and 18 of its employees, were indicted in Erie County, Pennsylvania, of conspiracy to commit wire and healthcare fraud and healthcare fraud. According to the indictment, the defendants engaged in a multifaceted conspiracy from January 2007 to October 2021 that involved a range of fraudulent activities. These included allegedly using unlicensed technicians to provide therapy and then billing for the treatment as though licensed therapists had performed it, regularly billing for treatment using the name and credentials of physical therapists who were on vacation, recording, and billing for time that exceeded the actual treatment time, among several other allegations.
  • Robin Calef of Brockton, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to one count of theft of public funds. Calef shared a bank account with her sister, a veteran receiving monthly benefits from the VA. Her sister passed away in 2006, and Calef failed to report her death to the VA. Through September 2017, Calef stole approximately $102,289 in VA funds from the shared bank account. Sentencing is scheduled for March 1, 2022.
  • Lisa Hoffman, a former pharmacy procurement technician at the East Orange VA Medical Center in New Jersey, pleaded guilty to theft of government property. From October 2015 to November 2019, Hoffman was responsible for ordering medication, including large quantities of HIV medication, for the center’s outpatient pharmacy. She stole approximately $10 million worth of HIV medication and sold it to Wagner Checonolasco of Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Hoffman is scheduled to be sentenced on March 9, 2022. Checonolasco previously pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced on December 15, 2021.
  • Thirteen defendants, including three compounding pharmacy owners, three physicians, two pharmacists, and three patient recruiters, pleaded guilty to a years-long, multistate scheme to defraud the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) and TRICARE. The defendants submitted false and fraudulent claims to the OWCP and TRICARE for prescriptions for compounded and other drugs prescribed to injured federal workers and armed forces members. The defendants paid kickbacks to patient recruiters and physicians to persuade them to prescribe the drugs. Medications were selected based on the reimbursement amount and not on the patients’ needs. The drugs were then mailed to patients, even though they often never requested, wanted, or needed them. The defendants were indicted in June 2018 and are scheduled to be sentenced in February 2022.
  • Andrew Ziacik of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to one day of imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release and was ordered to pay $4,000. Between 2013 and 2017, Ziacik was an appointed federal fiduciary for his older brother, a service-disabled veteran. Ziacik was responsible for receiving his brother’s VA income and paying his brother’s debts. However, Ziacik admitted that he violated the terms of his fiduciary agreement by using the VA funds to purchase a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a diamond ring, and a GMC Sierra truck. As part of his sentence, Ziacik will pay restitution to his brother of $75,000.I-Care

When it comes to incompetence, neglect of duties, and abuse of veterans, the final entry in today’s chronicles of shame reflects blatant criminality, and repercussions and remunerations are only a small part of serving justice.  Never forget the following fact, “overpayments should have been considered an administrative error and the debt waived since veterans are not responsible for repaying overpayments that are found to be the result of administrative errors” [emphasis mine].  The VA-OIG investigation reflects the following:

        • April 2021, the VA Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) discovered the VBA had incorrectly created a debt of about $210,000 for a veteran.
        • Because of the size of the debt and VA’s plan to withhold the veteran’s entire monthly compensation benefits (over $1,100), and given the veteran’s history of treatment for mental illness, a prior suicide attempt, and suicidal ideation, the VA-OIG review team promptly contacted VBA for corrective action.
        • When contacted by the veteran at four different VA offices, staff assured the veteran all was good, the overpayment was not his to pay, and it would be worked out administratively.

These are the investigation facts; to get this administrative error corrected, the problem had to percolate to the VA-OIG instead of any number of the checks and balances, quality assurance measures, and other in-house processes to catch the VBA from damaging a veteran.  The VBA failed!  How many hundreds of employees were responsible for this disaster and leadership failure?  When will those employees be held accountable?  The case presented is but one of thousands of cases every year where the VBA makes a mistake.  The veteran, their family, and the taxpayer are abused, robbed, cheated, and responsibility shirked and avoided by the employees.VA 3

Imagine for a moment, you wake up, got to the mailbox.  You find the VBA will take your monthly benefit, the money you need to live on because they made an error, but you have to pay for their mistakes unless a power greater than the local agency exerts sufficient force to correct the problem.  Assurances from the VBA are pie-crust promises, easily made, easily broken, and crumby!  The final statement in this charade from the VA-OIG is priceless.

VBA should consider steps to avoid this type of error in the future.”

Angry Grizzly BearSeriously, the VBA’s internal processes failed and would have continued failing if the VA-OIG had not stepped in and demanded immediate action on the veteran’s behalf!  How many other veterans are not so lucky; too many!  America, the shame of the VA is beyond the pale, and a complete reckoning and corrective action should be the action of Congress as the President refuses to clean house in the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch MUST step up and do their constitutional duties!  The legislative and the executive branches must answer to us, the taxpayers and citizens, for the continual debacles displayed by recalcitrant and intransigent federal employees.  In front of real judges, real people must answer and be held accountable for the crimes of neglect of duty demonstrated!

© Copyright 2021 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images.  Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.

It IS ALL About Leadership – More Shameful VA Chronicles

I-CareRecently, guardianships have been in the news, and I doubt this story will make the lawyers very happy.  The department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) reports that an Albuquerque couple has been sentenced for defrauding guardians, which included veterans.  The criminal report claims:

Susan Harris acted as president and was the 95-percent owner of Ayudando, while Moore acted as chief financial officer and was a five-percent owner. They engaged in a pattern of criminal conduct from November 2006 to July 2017 that included unlawfully transferring money from client accounts to a comingled account without any client-based justification.  They wrote and endorsed numerous checks, often of more than $10,000, from these comingled accounts to themselves, family members, cash, and other parties where payment would benefit their families.”

For the better part of 11 years, this couple has spent money not their own, abused their charges, and defrauded vulnerable clientele.  While the federal attorneys and investigators crow about catching this couple and ending this situation; what about all the rest of the guardianships where abuse is occurring?  I have read horrific stories about victims of guardianship abuse and hope more will be done on this topic very shortly!VA 3

For 11 years, where were the VA and the Social Security Administration?  Where were the local hospital leadership, social workers, and other federal employees who had to have known something fishy was going on?  Where are these Federal Employees now?  Where are the politicians scrutinizing this incident to ensure that protection for vulnerable citizens never happens again through legal guardianships?

Now traveling to Eastern Oklahoma VAHCS in Muskogee where an audiologist provided poor care and billed for unrendered services.  Pay close attention to the VA-OIG report; the leadership failures on this report alone are voluminous and unforgivable!

A facility fact-finding review revealed the audiologist provided poor care to eight of 43 patients reviewed, including misinforming patients who needed hearing aids that hearing aids were not needed. Although the audiology leaders reported the fact-finding results to the OIG, they failed to evaluate whether patients needed clinical follow-up; determine whether additional patients were affected by the audiologist’s poor care; evaluate whether clinical disclosures were required for the affected patients; and communicate the fact-finding results to the Facility Director, who was, therefore, unable to initiate the process to determine the necessity of a large scale disclosure. The instances of poor care were also not reported to the Patient Safety Manager, who was, as a result, unable to assess the adverse events to determine if patient safety interventions were indicated. The VA-OIG also found that performance monitoring of facility audiologists was not conducted as required. Annual competency assessments and annual performance appraisals were not consistently completed and did not contain adequate performance standards. Audiology leaders failed to consider whether the audiologist’s actions warranted a report to the state licensing board due to a lack of understanding of the requirements for reporting and, therefore, the Facility Director was not informed of the need to initiate a state licensing board review” [emphasis mine].

Will, someone please tell me, were the audiology leaders who failed to perform their jobs removed from Federal Employment?  What about the audiologists causing the problems?  Are they removed from Federal Employment?  Were their licensing practices curbed to protect other populations of patients?  The leadership failures here read like a Steven King horror story but do not have the satisfaction of finishing the story.VA 3

Yet, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) will continue to market that they are “defining quality in healthcare.”  The jokes write themselves but cannot be fired from Federal Employment!  Politicians, why can these jokers not be fired from Federal employment for such egregious abuse of their positions and failures to do their jobs?

I-CareTraveling further to North Carolina, we find that the perpetrator of this fraud has pled guilty, but again responsibility, accountability, and correction of the VA is being skirted.

John Paul Cook, 57, of Alexander, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to defrauding the VA. After enlisting in the Army in 1985, Cook sustained an accidental injury and complained the injury worsened a preexisting eye condition. In 1987, Cook was discharged, and he began receiving benefits that would increase over the next 30 years due to Cook’s repeated false claims of increased visual impairment and unemployability. In 2005, the VA declared Cook legally blind, and he began receiving disability-based compensation at the maximum rate despite repeatedly passing vision screening tests to obtain or renew his driver’s license and purchasing vehicles that he routinely drove.”

1987 to 2020, we will be generous in counting the years here; regardless, we are looking at 30+ years this fraud continued.  Where were the verification protocols?  I have had to produce a valid driver’s license at the VA to obtain and keep current my VA identification card.  How did this fraud go on for so long?  What is the VA doing to stop, or at least hinder, those who would defraud the government before the problem becomes 10 years old, let alone 30?!?!  I cannot fathom how this fraud went on for so long without a routine checkup, a routine exam, a follow-up exam, etc.VA 3

Going north from South Carolina, we find more fraud, this time in New Jersey, where a man did not report his mother had deceased and continued to claim her benefits for a total of over $200K.

Melvin Greenspan, 72, of Perrineville, New Jersey, pleaded guilty to defrauding VA of over $200,000 in survivor’s pension benefits. After the death of his mother in 2006, who had received survivor’s pension due to his father’s prior military service, Greenspan failed to notify the VA about his mother’s death and made withdrawals of the benefits through 2018.”

Where was the leadership?  Where are the leaders now?  Another fraud case, older than a decade, and still the VA cannot be held accountable for facilitating the fraud.  I am stunned!  How did this one continue for so long?  Doesn’t the VA check local newspapers, the Social Security Administration, other Federal Agencies?  Since the culprit was not held on defrauding SSA, one can only presume the mother’s death was reported there.  Why did the VA not get notified to ask the family questions?VA 3

On the topic of guardians and leadership, the following story makes me angry!  However, I will withhold further elaboration since those accused remain innocent until proven guilty by a trial of their peers.

Johnny Ray Gasca, 51, was arrested for allegedly abducting a 68-year-old woman with dementia from the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center in California. A witness recognized Gasca and reported he might have previously taken money from the woman’s bank and retirement accounts. Following his arrest, Gasca described the victim as his girlfriend and told agents that they stopped at a bank where the victim made a $15,000 withdrawal after leaving the medical center.”

In the first report from the VA-OIG discussed, we found guardianship rules being violated to the Nth degree.  In this story, we have no information of an assigned guardian, and we have a dementia patient being abused.  The dementia patient was traveling with a friend; who is the legal guardian for a dementia patient?  Where are the family or friends legally bonded to render aid for this patient and monitor finances to protect them from abuse?  How can the VA operate one way in one locale and 180-degrees differently in another locale and the leadership not held accountable?VA 3

Speaking of missing leadership, the following VA-OIG report is a beauty!  The Department of Veterans Affairs – Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has a program to help homeless veterans, where contractors are used, and the VHA uses case management documentation to verify the veteran is receiving the assistance being paid for, the program is called the contracted residential services (CRS) program.

The VA-OIG found facility staff did not consistently document case management and monitor the progress of veterans in the program.  Further, four of the 14 CRS contracts reviewed had performance deficiencies, with one resulting in improper payments of $592,000. These deficiencies may affect the health and safety of veterans living in transitional settings. Moreover, VA lacks assurance that veterans received required services. There were also contract administration problems in 13 of 14 reviewed contracts. Contracting officers did not always properly delegate responsibilities to staff functioning as contracting officer’s representatives. Further, one facility’s representative did not ensure contractors provided meals or the means to purchase them, as required, and another lacked invoice supporting documentation for approval. The VA-OIG audit team estimated that 107 of 119 contracts had monitoring and administration deficiencies. Furthermore, the team estimated that VHA made $35.3 million in improper payments, of which approximately $21.6 million was technically improper because the individuals authorizing payment were not delegated authority to serve as contracting officer’s representatives.”

If your accomplishment rate in your employment was 48%, would you retain your job for very long?  If 90% of your documentation claiming how well you do your job was missing or fabricated, how long would you maintain employment?  If you delegated people to complete your work who were unauthorized and you were contractually culpable, how long do you think you would stay out of prison?  How long would your boss stay out of jail?  How long would your company exist?  Now, answer me this riddler, why does the government get a pass on these questions?VA 3

Finally, we have Deputy Inspector General David Case’s testimony regarding the failure of VA leadership where the implementation of a new electronic health record (EHR) is being stalled.  If you care, the VA leadership and the VHA leadership are failing the EHR initiative.  Not that this was not expected, and not that this is not surprising, the IT and IS departments of the VA and VHA are so hopelessly lost it amazes me the VA is even using computers and not written records!  But, do not take my word for it, Case himself claims,

“Detailed in this statement, we have repeatedly found unreliable and incomplete estimates for upgrades and costs, inadequate reporting affecting transparency to Congress, and stove-piped governance with decision making that does not appropriately engage Veterans Health Administration (VHA) personnel who are the end-users of the new EHR system.”VA 3

Knowledge Check!Get that; the leadership failures are obstructing Congress and hindering the EHR progress!  What can we conclude from this batch of VA-OIG reports:

        1. The VA, VHA, VBA, and National Cemetery leadership are actively missing, like the Democrats from the Texas Legislature.
        2. If the leaders are present, the leaders are the problems in progressing.
        3. The leaders have created a system where fraud and abuse of the veterans and taxpayers can be achieved with ease.
        4. Nobody in the US House of Representatives or US Senate scrutinizes the legislative branch sufficiently to effect changes.
        5. When in doubt about where your leaders fall, check to see if they are in their offices. Oh, wait, that won’t help, their offices have locks on the doors!

If this is how the VA defines quality healthcare. In that case, the veterans are screwed, the taxpayer is sunk, and the leaders will enjoy their magnanimous federally approved retirement packages, ad nauseam ad infinitum!

© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.