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The VA Fired A Doctor For ‘Egregious’ Misconduct. The Bevin Administration Hired Him.

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Dr. John “Mel” Bennett in an interview during his tenure at the KY Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Photo: KY Cabinet for Health and Family Services

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration hired a physician to lead the state’s infectious disease office just months after the Department of Veterans Affairs dismissed that doctor for “egregious” medical misconduct.

Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services hired Dr. John “Mel” Bennett in the same month that the VA’s Inspector General published a report highly critical of Bennett’s actions. 

The VA’s IG report found that between Oct. 1, 2015, and Dec. 27, 2017, Bennett repeatedly entered the same blood pressure reading of 128/78 in order to bypass a clinical alert system. The alert required the doctor to enter additional information that involved follow-up work with the patients, such as blood tests and changes in medication. The inaccurate blood pressure records, according to the report, were “most likely an effort to reduce workload.” 

The IG found that Bennett falsified blood pressure readings in 99.5 percent of 1,370 cases involving patients at highest risk for developing health problems due to hypertension. 

When confronted at the time, Bennett acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. 

According to a document obtained from an open records request to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, Bennett told Dr. Mark Swisher, the VA Chief of Primary Care, that he thought he could be fired, lose his medical license or go to prison. 

VA consultant Dr. Thomas Wong discussed the incident in a podcast produced by the IG’s office. Wong said that several patients had adverse health outcomes because of the inaccurate information in their medical charts. One patient suffered an acute cardiac event.

“Patients trust that ethical practice occurs throughout the patient-provider relationship. If this trust is broken, that relationship is eroded and is potentially irreversible,” he said. 

Documents show Bennett recorded inaccurate information into patient charts 50 times in 10 days between Dec. 11 and Dec. 21, 2017. 

The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure later issued an Agreed Order outlining Bennett’s conduct and sanctions. In that document, Lexington, Kentucky, VA Medical Center Director Emma Metcalf was blunt in her assessment of Bennett’s behavior. 

Bennett’s offenses, she wrote, are “egregious, directly related to your duties, intentional and frequently repeated. 

“You have lost the confidence of your colleagues regarding your reliability, accuracy and integrity,” she wrote. “You have violated your patients’ and colleagues’ trust as well as failed to meet the standards entrusted to us as physicians. Your actions have placed Veterans in harm’s way and violate the established principles governing the practice of medicine.”

Hired By Kentucky

The VA suspended Bennett’s privileges – meaning he was barred from treating patients – on Dec. 26, 2017, when the investigation began. The VA fired him on July 6, 2018, and the VA’s Metcalf sent a letter to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure two weeks later explaining the VA decision. 

In the letter, obtained through an open records request, Metcalf wrote, “there is substantial evidence that John Bennett, MD so significantly failed to meet generally-accepted standards of clinical practice so as to raise reasonable concern for the safety of patients.”

Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services hired Bennett in September 2018, to lead the state’s infectious disease branch at a salary of $127,000.

The infectious disease office helps combat and prevent contagious diseases such as hepatitis A and HIV. When Bennett was hired, Kentucky was in the midst of multiple infectious disease challenges. 

A spokesperson for the Health and Family Services Cabinet declined a request for an interview.

Instead, spokesperson Christina Dettman wrote in an email that “Dr. Bennett has a Master’s in Public Health, an M.D., as well as time serving on a Board of Public Health, making him fully qualified to be hired for the position.”

Dettman also wrote that the VA published its report after Bennett was hired and that “the findings did not identify Dr. Bennett as the physician under investigation.”

Dr. Jeffrey Howard was Kentucky’s public health commissioner. Photo: KY Public Health Dept.

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, who approved Bennett’s hire, was public health commissioner at the time and was on the licensure board, which received the VA’s letter in July. 

However, board rules require such information to remain confidential for some time until an investigation is complete.

In a second email sent after this story was originally published, cabinet spokesperson Dettman pointed out that due to the licensure board’s procedural timeline, Howard would not have been notified of the VA letter at the time of Bennett’s hire.

“The Cabinet for Health and Family Services had no way of knowing Dr. Bennett’s conduct was in question when he was hired by the Cabinet, nor at any point during his tenure with the Cabinet through the time he was terminated,” she wrote.

Bennett remained in charge of the infectious disease office for six months until his removal in April. His tenure covered an especially critical period for public health in Kentucky. The state faced the country’s worst ongoing outbreak of hepatitis A.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4,900 Kentuckians have been diagnosed with hep A, half of those have been hospitalized and 61 people have died. The state’s efforts in combating the disease have been criticized by Bennett’s predecessor, Dr. Robert Brawley, as being too slow and underfunded. 

Bennett’s Response

Bennett’s resume shows a long history of work as a family physician, going back to his early days as a member of the U. S. Army Medical Corps from 1989-1994.

According to the resume included in his state application, Bennett is a certified fellow in the American Academy Of Family Physicians. That resume also states Bennett was still employed by the VA at the time he applied for the state position, even though he had been fired in July.

Bennett said in an interview that he was unaware of entering the same blood pressure over and over but also that it was a treatment strategy. 

“I thought I had an ability to, to sub-categorize my patients into a group that I can work with at a later date. It was wrong,” he said.

Bennett gave a similar explanation to both the VA and the licensure board. Both rejected his arguments. 

In June, the state licensure board place Bennett’s license on probation for five years. The board also ordered Bennett to complete mandated training and pay a $5,000 fine.

Investigations

Families of W.Va. VA Hospital Homicides Search for Answers as Federal Investigation Continues

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Photo: Dave Mistich/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Two deaths have been ruled homicides at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and an ongoing investigation is leaving families of the victims desperate for answers.

Federal prosecutors say they are in the “beginning of the end” of their work. But the VA and Office of Inspector General have provided few details on how many veterans may have been killed at the facility or what has been done to ensure it won’t happen again. Most of the information that has been made public has come from the families of the victims.

The first confirmed homicide was Army Sgt. Felix McDermott, a Vietnam veteran from Ellenboro, West Virginia. 

His family says he happily used the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center facilities about 40 minutes away in Clarksburg. But while being treated for aspiration pneumonia in April of 2018, McDermott died in the VA hospital at the age of 82. 

His daughter, Melanie Proctor, said he wasn’t in perfect health but she had expected him to be released back to the nursing home.

“Somebody gave him a shot of insulin — even though he’s not a diabetic, which caused him to pass,” Proctor said. “We thought he had died of natural causes. Only to find out in late August last year when the FBI showed up at my house, that he didn’t. And we have been waiting for answers ever since.”

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin told reporters last week a third body was in the process of being exhumed to determine a cause of death. 

Officials at the VA medical center in Clarksburg did not agree to an interview but did say a person of interest is not a current employee. The facility says it is cooperating with investigators and the Office of Inspector General. 

Local Veterans Stunned at Confirmed Homicides

Just a few miles down the road, local veterans were gathered Tuesday night at the VFW Post 573 in downtown Clarksburg. Many there noted that the Louis A. Johnson center has a reputation for providing quality care to veterans.

“I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, we’re not safe anywhere.’ You go to the hospital expecting to be helped — not to be killed,” said 68-year-old Vietnam veteran David Barker of Clarksburg.

Barker says he’s there mostly for outpatient treatment and, overall, he says the care there is pretty good. Still, he’s alarmed by what he’s heard.

“It makes me think twice about letting anyone give me a shot of anything,” he said. Unless I know what it is and who it is that’s giving it to me.”

Federal Prosecutor Says Investigation Reaching the ‘Beginning of the End’

U.S. Attorney William Powell says the investigation has been ongoing for “some months” and that he and other officials have been working diligently to wrap up the case. 

“If you’re going to categorize it, I would say it’s the beginning of the end as opposed to the beginning of the beginning,” Powell said.

Powell and others can’t say exactly when an indictment might come, but they, too, have acknowledged a person of interest. 

For family members of confirmed victims — like Felix McDermott’s daughter Melanie Proctor — she’s calling out a warning to anyone who goes there for treatment.

“I would be asking a lot of questions before I left a loved one there,” Proctor said. “I’d want to know ‘How did you fix this?’ — which I still don’t even know. They say they got safety measures in place. But I don’t know what they are now, even — and I’m involved in it.”

An attorney for McDermott’s family says relatives of at least five others who died at the Clarksburg VA have contacted him about the suspicious nature of a veteran’s death. 

But the Office of Inspector General declined to provide a number of deaths at the facility that are being investigated as potential homicides.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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