Feds: Probe into deaths at VA hospital is ‘top priority’

National News
Robert Wilkie

FILE – In this Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Demand for answers escalated as federal officials promised Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, to conduct a sweeping investigation into suspicious deaths at Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors said Friday a sweeping criminal probe into a number of suspicious deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Virginia would be their “top priority.”

Bill Powell, the U.S. attorney in West Virginia, said his office is involved in a “comprehensive federal criminal investigation” into the deaths of up to 11 patients at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg. At least two of the deaths have been ruled homicides, according to attorneys representing families of men who died.

The announcement comes about a week after federal prosecutors indicted a former pathologist at another VA hospital in Arkansas — who is accused of being impaired while on duty — in connection with the deaths of three patients. Authorities say he misdiagnosed the patients and later altered records to conceal his mistakes.

There is no evidence to suggest the cases are related, but the investigations are yet another black eye for the government’s second-largest department, which is responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Donald Trump repeatedly railed against the care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, promising to fix the agency. He signed legislation that made it easier to fire VA employees and speed disability appeals and expanded the Veterans Choice program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the VA medical system at government expense.

The agency’s former director was fired last year in the wake of a bruising ethics scandal and a mounting rebellion within the agency, and the doctor who Trump nominated to replace him had to withdraw his nomination amid accusations of misconduct.

Robert Wilkie, the current Veterans Affairs secretary, who has been in his post since last July, has called for an expedited investigation into the suspicious deaths in West Virginia.

“We fully understand the desire for a speedy resolution and need for closure,” Powell said.

Powell said the investigation, being conducted by federal prosecutors and the FBI, would be his office’s “top priority” and that the probe began as soon as potential criminal activity was discovered. The Veterans Administration’s inspector general is also investigating.

Sen. Joe Manchin of WestVirginia said he spoke directly with Attorney General William Barr about the deaths and was headed to tour the hospital on Friday and meet with hospital staff and veterans. In a letter to the attorney general, Manchin said he had “grave concerns over the pace of the investigation.”

Manchin, a Democrat, said the VA inspector general told his office about the opening of a medical and criminal investigation of the hospital in July 2018, after at least nine patients were diagnosed with unexplained low blood sugar.

In the deaths that attorneys said have been ruled homicides, 82-year-old former Army Sgt. Felix Kirk McDermott was wrongly injected with a fatal dose of insulin at the hospital in April 2018, according to a notice of a pending lawsuit. An attorney representing the family of George Nelson Shaw Sr., an 81-year-old retired member of the Air Force, said he too had died at the hospital in April 2018 from a wrongful insulin injection.

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Yonker reported from Shelbyville, Kentucky. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.

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