Senators press VA on suspicious deaths at W.Va. veterans hospital
WASHINGTON – Key senators are pressing the Trump administration to move “thoroughly and quickly” on its investigation into at least 10 suspicious deaths – including two homicides – of veterans at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the panel, spoke jointly with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Friday for a briefing on the latest developments regarding the lengthy probe by the department’s Office of Inspector General, according to a statement released by both offices.
“They agreed with the secretary that the investigation should be concluded thoroughly and quickly to provide answers to the victims’ families and to reassure Clarksburg veterans that the care they are receiving meets the high standard expected from the VA health care system,” the statement said.
The calls for action come following reports by USA TODAY that at least two deaths last year at the West Virginia medical center have been ruled homicides amid an investigation that was made public this month. The cause of death for both veterans, George Nelson Shaw Sr. and Felix Kirk McDermott, were changed after their bodies were exhumed and a medical examiner found that both men, neither of whom had a history of diabetes, died from insulin injections.
More: After 10 suspicious deaths at VA hospital, veterans demand answers. ‘It’s scary – really scary’
More: Family devastated by VA hospital death ruled homicide
Diabetics can take insulin to control their blood sugar levels. But if a person without diabetes receives an insulin injection, it can lower their blood sugar too much and cause death.
The FBI is investigating the death along with the Inspector General.
Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for Isakson, said the chairman was waiting for the probe to wrap up before deciding on a course of action.
“Once concluded, Sen. Isakson will closely review the IG’s findings to ensure proper steps are taken to address the wrongdoing and prevent something like this from happening in the future,” she said.
Wilkie told Fox News Thursday that the probe was already underway before he was sworn in more than a year ago. The VA said that hospital officials first alerted the VA OIG about the suspicious deaths in June 2018.
“It is time for the Inspector General, who is not controlled by me or the White House, to finally end this investigation to answer the questions that our grieving families have,” Wilkie said. “It has been far too long.”
Earlier this week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., spoke Monday with Wilkie and the director of the Clarksburg, West Virginia, medical center about the suspicious deaths and the ongoing investigation.
The senator said officials told him there was a “person of interest” in the investigation but did not go into any details other than saying the person was “no longer in any contact with Veterans at the VA facility.”
Exclusive: Second homicide identified in string of deaths at VA hospital; family ‘floored’
More: Authorities investigating 10 suspicious deaths at VA hospital, including one ruled a homicide
“These crimes shock the conscience and I’m still appalled they were not only committed but that our Veterans, who have sacrificed so much for our country, were the victims,” Manchin said after the Monday phone call.
Throughout the week, Manchin has sent letters to the Justice Department and VA calling for answers and for both agencies to dedicate their full resources to the investigation.
“Due to the lack of information being made available to the public by investigators, veterans across my state are losing confidence in the safety, security, and quality of their VA healthcare,” Manchin wrote in a letter Thursday to Attorney General William Barr. “Time is of the essence and the public deserves answers immediately. With each passing day, more and more Veterans could be unknowingly placed in harm’s way.”
The senator said he was first notified in July 2018 about the string of deaths and that the VA Office of Inspector General had opened medical and criminal investigations. But during a visit to the hospital Friday, he said he didn’t know until last week any deaths had been ruled homicides. The investigation didn’t become public until this month.
“My biggest question is, when? When did we know there were serious problems?” he asked Friday. “When did we confirm that first death, knowing it was an intentional homicide and not an accident?”
Sen. Shelley Capito said she has also talked with a number of officials throughout the week, pressing for answers and getting the latest on the probe.
“This news is sickening and troubling. I have spoken with several officials—including Secretary Wilkie, U.S. Attorney Bill Powell, Clarksburg VA Director Glenn Snider, and VA Inspector General Michael Missal—about the issue, and my office has also been in touch with the VA to learn more details,” Capito said in a statement. “We will continue to stay on top of this, and I will do everything I can to make sure this is fully investigated”
Congressman David McKinley, whose district includes the facility, also has discussed the investigation with officials at the VA, and said through a spokeswoman that the hope was the probe would help families whose loved ones died at the facility.
“We hope to get more answers about this situation as that investigation progresses,” said Amanda Hyman, a spokeswoman for McKinley. “We have spoken with the Office of the Inspector General and have been ensured the investigation is a top priority. What happened is a tragedy and our office will continue to work with the Veterans Administration to ensure that the families of these veterans receive the closure they deserve.”
Contributing: Ken Alltucker, Donovan Slack