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Lax Psychiatric Care Alleged at St. Louis VA Hospital

Jim Salter / Associated Press & KMOX
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The John Cochran VA Medical Center. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The John Cochran VA Medical Center. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX/AP) - As criticism mounts over the Veterans Affairs health care system and many call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down over allegations of a waiting list for veterans at a Phoenix hospital, the VA hospital in St. Louis is investigating claims by its own former chief of psychiatry.

In a federal whistleblower complaint filed last year, Dr. Jose Mathews claims that veterans often wait a month or more for mental health treatment because psychiatrists and other staff members are so lax in their work.

Mathew also says he was demoted because of a staff “mutiny” that followed his efforts to make employees work harder and more efficiently.

The concerns prompted a joint letter from both of Missouri’s U.S. senators to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Monday. The letter seeks information on the number of mental health providers at the St. Louis VA, their workload, and in how timely a manner patients are being seen.

“If true, these claims would demonstrate an unacceptable lack of leadership at the VA in St. Louis that is putting the health and safety of veterans at risk,” the senators wrote.

“We saw in the incident at Ft. Hood just a few weeks ago what happens when someone is seeking mental help and gets an appointment for that help, but is either misdiagnosed, doesn’t get the help they need in the time they need it, they can do danger to themselves or others,” Blunt told KMOX.

Marcena Gunter, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said the complaints are under investigation.

“We take these allegations seriously,” Gunter wrote in an email. “The St. Louis VA Medical Center leadership is aware of and is addressing the alleged issues.”

Mathews took over as chief of psychiatry in November 2012. He said he was astonished to learn of the limited workload of psychiatrists typically about six patients per day. He said they should be seeing at least twice that many.

“I could account for only a four-hour workday,” Mathews told The Associated Press.

The amount of time spent with each patient varies but the vast majority of visits are 30 minutes, Mathews said.

Meanwhile, the average wait time for those who are seeking help for mental illness is nearly 30 days, Mathews said.

“There is no conceivable reason a full-time psychiatrist should be seeing just six patients in a day,” Mathews said. “It was causing this huge delay in access to care.”

Mathews said he implemented several changes aimed at providing more timely treatment, but his efforts were met with opposition by staff. He was able to increase the average number of patients per psychiatrist to around nine per day by July. But in September, he was reassigned to a compensation and pension evaluation team.

“I was called in by the chief of staff,” Mathews said. “The words he used were, ‘There was a mutiny.”’

Mathews raised other concerns in his whistleblower complaint and in a letter to McCaskill last month. He cited data that “puts our facility well above the national average for productivity. This misleading data provided for budgetary funding appropriations does not correspond with the reality,” Mathews wrote to McCaskill.

He also questioned:

Why bonuses are paid to virtually all staffers, regardless of their productivity.

Why his requests for investigations into the deaths of two veterans were turned down.

Whether staff intentionally failed to report a psychiatric patient’s suicide attempt that occurred while an accreditation commission was visiting the hospital last year.

The VA hospital in St. Louis has been under scrutiny before. In 2010, faulty sterilization at the center’s dental clinic raised concerns that 1,812 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Testing eventually found no link to either disease in any of the patients.

Another cleanliness concern arose in February 2011 when the hospital shut down its operating rooms because rust stains were found on surgical equipment. Surgeries resumed several months later after the faulty equipment was cleaned or replaced. The VA revised polices and opened a new $7 million sterile processing lab in May 2012.

The complaint by Mathews comes amid reports that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting medical care from the VA hospital in Phoenix.

“The underlying principle is what is corrupt,” he said. “You have an obsessive desire to look good on paper with no regard to whether care is good or not.”

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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