After raising concerns about illegal and unsafe practices by the acting chief of staff at a VA hospital, how long should it take investigators to look into the issue and start taking action? A week? A month?
In the case of Dr. Barbara Temeck, deputy chief of staff at the VA hospital in Cincinnati, it took VA officials over a year and a half to suspend her after whistleblowers informed them she had illegally prescribed painkillers for her boss’s wife. Dr. Temeck wrote prescriptions for several “controlled substances, including hydrocodone and a generic form of Valium” for the wife of the VA regional director in 2013, despite the spouse not being a VA patient.
Writing prescriptions for the spouse of a superior wasn’t just unethical—Dr. Temeck had no business writing prescriptions for controlled painkillers in the first place. Her Illinois license to prescribe controlled painkillers had expired two years earlier. Even if it was valid, the license would have only allowed her to write prescriptions for VA patients in Illinois, not private patients.
Dr. Temeck also was misleading about where she was living at the time in order to issue the prescriptions for over 150 pills. She was working in South Carolina in 2013, but used an address connected with an Illinois VA hospital where she used to work.
As if illegally prescribing painkillers wasn’t bad enough, the state of the Cincinnati VA hospital under her leadership was abysmal at best. In September of 2015, nearly three dozen doctors, nurses, and other employees raised “urgent concerns about quality of care” to officials. Among their allegations:
- Dr. Temeck’s salary was over $300,000, including almost $200,000 for her role as a cardiothoracic surgeon. Yet employees who worked in the operating room with her say she never performed a surgery. “She’s in the room when surgeries happen, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen her pick up a scalpel and do a surgery,” one whistleblower said.
- Whistleblowers said Dr. Temeck slashed the hospital’s capabilities and staff to save money, leaving the facility unable to provide the proper care to veterans. In one case, nurses and doctors were left scrambling when a patient stopped breathing because there was no emergency airway specialist working at the hospital during off hours.
- Staffers also claimed medical equipment came to operating rooms covered in bone chips and blood from previous surgeries. The whistleblowers say when they complained to Dr. Temeck, she told them they were being “too picky” and insisted they had to wait for her to inspect the equipment before they could get new tools, even if the patient was already under anesthesia or cut open. Cincinnati’s VA medical center has one of the highest rates of MRSA infections in the country.
Hospital administrators shouldn’t be able to hand out painkillers and provide years of substandard care for veterans without VA officials taking notice. When staffers first raised concerns, they were told no action would be taken. It wasn’t until they went public with their stories that the VA began looking into the issue.
Dr. Temeck’s case is just further proof the VA puts bureaucrats first, at the expense of the veterans they should be serving. She’s suspended and expected to be fired, but her lawyers are already challenging the decision. It’s time for Congress to pass the VA Accountability First Act and give VA administrators authority to get rid of bad employees swiftly.
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