A federal probe of practices at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cincinnati resulted in a sweeping change of control late Friday, prompted by an upcoming four-month Scripps Washington Bureau and WCPO Insider joint investigation.
The VA regional network director’s authority over the Cincinnati hospital will be removed until further notice, pending the results of twin investigations launched by the VA and its inspector general, the agency said. The Cincinnati hospital, which normally reports in to the Vertically Integrated Service Network (VISN) 10 region in Cincinnati, will temporarily report in to VISN 4 executives in Pittsburgh.
The move was to “ensure no conflict of interest” during the inquiry, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement to Scripps.
The agency opened the first of two investigations of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center after reporters from E.W. Scripps Co. briefed agency officials in Washington on an upcoming investigative story involving hospital leadership and alleged conflicts of interest with VISN 10 leadership.
The Scripps News Washington Bureau and WCPO Insider have been investigating several issues raised by dozens of whistleblowers at the hospital, which cares for 43,000 local veterans and had a 2015 operating budget of $373 million. Scripps began its investigation in October and briefed agency officials on the upcoming story as part of the reporting process.
The VA’s Office of Medical Inspector opened an investigation Tuesday, three days after the Scripps briefing. Sources at the hospital say VA investigators entered the hospital on Monday and stayed through most of the week interviewing employees.
“We will investigate these allegations and, if substantiated, hold anyone accountable as appropriate based on facts and evidence,” said James Hutton, media relations director for the VA. “It is simply the right thing to do for our veterans and our hard-working, dedicated employees there.”
As a team of Scripps reporters continued to work on the story, the VA headquarters office in Washington asked its Office of Inspector General to launch a second investigation on Friday.
The VA did not reveal what specific allegations are being investigated.
However, the Scripps team briefed agency officials on evidence of potentially inappropriate conduct involving a high-ranking official at the Cincinnati hospital, regional network director Jack Hetrick and one of Hetrick’s family members.
After Hetrick was questioned about the matter in a recent interview, Hetrick’s family member threatened litigation in an attempt to stop some of the allegations in the upcoming Scripps report from coming out.
Scripps is currently in the process of confirming additional details prior to publication of its entire investigation.
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU: If you have a tip for us to investigate or if you’re a veteran that wants to share your experience seeking care at any VA hospital in the nation, drop us a line. Mark.Greenblatt@Scripps.com; Daniel.Monk@WCPO.com; Aaron.Kessler@scripps.com