Whistleblower: Chicago-Area VA's Management Covered Up Cockroach Problem

Administrators at a Chicago-area VA hospital knew they had a cockroach problem so severe that bugs were served in patients’ food for years, yet both in-house kitchen inspectors and management did nothing to resolve the problem, the Veteran Affairs Office of Inspector General said in a report issued Tuesday.

Even though employees had been complaining about the infestation since 2011, VA inspectors only began investigating on May 10, 2016 after a news article had documented the infestation at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Ill. The report gave no reason why its public release was delayed a year.

Problems have continued until this week as contracted quality control inspectors from the Joint Commission found numerous problems, such as food past the expiration date, refrigerators at the wrong temperatures, and frozen food with no expiration dates, according to an internal email. Whistleblower Germaine Clarno, who is a Hines social worker, also saw raw chicken served to a patient. (Images of raw chicken and expired food below, courtesy Clarno.)

Hospital Director Steve Braverman sent an email to staff Tuesday outlining IG investigations saying he "concurred with those unacceptable findings" and that the hospital will be "making these improvements now" pertaining to the Joint Commission’s review.

"Although our surveyor and the OIG inspection teams found areas for improvement and, in some cases, unacceptable conditions, I consider both experiences to be beneficial," Braverman wrote. "These findings have led, and will lead, to improvements in the services we provide to our patients and Veterans. We will take action."

Braverman, an Army physician, was hired as the director last October after 10 different people had cycled in and out of the job between 2011 and 2016.

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, issued a stern statement to Daily Wire:

"I was disgusted to read the OIG’s report on Hines," said Roe. "When our nation’s heroes seek services at any VA facility, they deserve to be treated with respect and to be cared for in a high-quality environment, not have their health endangered by neglect of proper sanitation. Reports of the conditions at Hines - and the fact that those sanitation failures were swept under the rug - are unacceptable and will not be tolerated: He also stated, "I was disgusted to read the OIG’s report on Hines. When our nation’s heroes seek services at any VA facility, they deserve to be treated with respect and to be cared for in a high-quality environment, not have their health endangered by neglect of proper sanitation. Reports of the conditions at Hines - and the fact that those sanitation failures were swept under the rug - are unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

"I think it’s unfortunate that these issues were first raised by me and other whistleblowers in 2011 and it took a news article before they did anything," said Clarno, who is also the local AFGE union president at Hines. "I was in Mental Health when I first saw the cockroaches on the food trays -- these were veterans with mental health issues. They were devastated, they refused to eat; they got sick."

Clarno blasted the VA’s internal inspectors for "covering up" the roach problem by refusing to document any bug sightings despite visiting the kitchen four times a year. The IG investigators said they found "dead cockroaches on glue traps dispersed throughout the facility’s main kitchen."

"Practically every employee at Hines has known for years that there’s a cockroach problem," she said. "If the employees know, how could the inspectors miss it? This is the problem when the VA inspects itself."

According to the report, "for at least the last 2 years (VA inspectors) did not document the presence of cockroaches."

The IG substantiated six reports of cockroaches that were served to patients, transported throughout the 483-bed hospital in dirty food carts. Employees told investigators that no one was assigned the primary responsibility of ensuring and maintaining kitchen cleanliness. This was blamed on a staffing shortage. Hines has since hired a cleaning crew and 20 additional kitchen staff positions.

"We were informed that patients became very upset and distressed as a result of witnessing cockroaches on food trays and transportation carts," the report said. "At times, the patients’ distress would disrupt the entire unit. (Mental Health) nursing staff reported that on one occasion, pizza was ordered because patients were upset and refused to eat the food delivered via transportation carts the presence of cockroaches."

The report said that between March 2011 and December 2015, six reports of cockroach problems had been delivered to facility leadership, which "relied on its pest control program and did not take additional action to control the problem.”

Despite knowing about these findings for a year, Nutrition and Food Service Director Valerie Adegunleye – who has held that position since 2014 – remains on the job.

When questioned about this, Hines spokesperson Rick Fox told the Daily Wire that "Our leadership team is reviewing the actions of those involved and will take steps as appropriate."

A spokesperson for VA Secretary David Shulkin could not be reached for comment. Both Shulkin and President Trump have vowed to rid the VA of "bad" employees, which has culminated in a new executive order that creates a division within the agency to do just that.

Hines has had some measure of success under its new director. Last year it abandoned use of the in-house extermination team and hired Orkin pest control to eradicate the bug problem. Orkin has confirmed to the Daily Wire that the hospital’s kitchen was pest-free.

Braverman discussed this in his email.

"An inspection by Orkin two weeks ago confirmed our pest control improvements, 'Your kitchen is very clean, nearly perfectly repaired, and your staff are pursuing recommendations aggressively. You are now outperforming the wide majority of commercial kitchens out there as regards to pest proofing management,'" Braverman wrote.

Tori Richards has reported on some of the biggest stories in the world over the past 20 years for outlets including Fox News, Bloomberg, Reuters, The New York Times, NY Post and CBS News. Follow her on Twitter @NewsWriter2.

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