VA facilities across Ohio lost $1 million worth of medical equipment

10 Investigates uncovers problem affecting every Ohio VA facility
VA lost $1 million worth of equipment

COLUMBUS - VA medical facilities across Ohio lost track of more than $1.1 million worth of medical equipment and other electronics over the past three years, a 10 Investigates’ months-long investigation has uncovered.

Through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests 10 Investigates examined hundreds of pages of annual inventory records from VA medical centers in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Chillicothe between 2014 and 2017.

Using those records, 10 Investigates discovered that the facilities lost track of electronics and other medical equipment used to care for veterans each day.

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Here's the breakdown of how much was lost at each VA facility in Ohio between 2014 and 2017:

  • Columbus = $318,068.38
  • Chillicothe = $279,912.45
  • Cleveland = $234,867.70
  • Cincinnati = $200,634.76
  • Dayton = $90,305.60

In some cases, the facilities continued to lose equipment even after the VA spent nearly $24 million in Ohio (and roughly $400 million nationwide) on technology designed to install tiny tracking devices on the medical equipment and other devices.

The technology, known as real-time location systems or RTLS, relies on computer databases, wi-fi signals and radio frequency identification tags that either ping out a device’s location or allow a VA employee to scan for the items individually with the goal of keeping track of the equipment’s whereabouts in real-time.

But there were problems.

The technology experienced interference and signals that didn’t always work. Records show the RTLS tags sometimes weren’t installed properly or couldn’t find certain items listed in the inventory.

Federal inspectors with the VA’s Office of Inspector General recently testified that the VA rushed to expand the program nationwide in 2013 without first thoroughly testing the program to ensure it worked.

“First, I thank WBNS for this investigation. I have been troubled. I am the first Ohioan ever to serve a term or more on the veterans committee,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D – Ohio, told 10 Investigates during a recent interview. "Clearly there are still holes there and I've been disappointed the last year and a half, the VA which was improving, improving, improving, has started back a downward spiral. We’ve got to turn that around. I think the WBNS investigation helps us with that.”

Last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown questioned the VA secretary nominee Robert Wilkie about the findings of 10 Investigates’ report.

Wilkie told Brown during his Senate confirmation hearing that he would work to get Brown’s office more information.

The RTLS program also came under fire during a May hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs after it was discovered the VA was not renewing a $543 million contract it inked with Hewlett Packard in 2013 to install real-time location systems in all 152 VA medical centers nationwide.

Because of the problems tracking the devices and a miscommunication between the VA and HP, the contract at one point was put on hold, modified and the two sides agreed to drastically scale down the scope of the installation.

“The test results in March of 2015 were troubling, there were over 200 defects and the RTLS could only track equipment accurately 40 percent of the time. This led to conflict between VA and the contractor,” Rep. Jack Bergman, R – Michigan said during the May 9 hearing. “The facilities slated to receive the RTLS asset tracking capability (as) its main components were cut from 92 to 47. The facilities scheduled to receive RTLS in the catheterization labs and sterile processing departments were also pared down. The temperature monitoring departments of RTLS was almost completely eliminated.”

The contract between the VA and HP expired in June after the VA spent nearly $400 million, according to a May hearing in House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

“We can't have this kind of money wasted,” Rep. Scott Peters, D – California, said during the May hearing.

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, D – New York, told VA officials during the same hearing: “This mismanagement caused delays in veterans care and waste taxpayer dollars – it is beyond unacceptable.”

According to testimony from Nicholas Dahl, with the VA’s Office of Inspector General: “Despite guidance, the RTLS project management office did not ensure the vendor (HP) could meet the contracted functionality requirements such as accurate asset tracking on the initial $7.5 million task order before ultimately committing a total of $431 million dollars for further RTLS deployment.”

Here in Ohio, the VA used a separate contractor known as VetFed, spending roughly $24 million on RTLS technology since 2011, according to a VA spokeswoman.

10 Investigates reached out to VetFed employees, all of whom referred calls to its president, who did not return our phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Natasha Morrison, an Air Force veteran from Pickerington, told 10 Investigates she was not surprised by our findings. She’s had her own struggles with VA’s technology – namely tracking her prescriptions online.

“You have a whole stack of papers that proves they're just letting money walk out the door, it's frustrating,” Morrison said.

10 Investigates also discovered while many of the lost items were small like Apple iPads, cell phones or laptops, others items deemed to be “lost” including expensive medical instruments worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Some of those items like a patient sign-in kiosk worth $8,500, a portable patient lift worth $5,000, a $28,000 bedside monitor and stretcher listed at $12,000. All of those items were deemed “lost.”

In some cases, VA officials could not locate the items, in others, it was believed that the items had been turned in or sold but there was no inventory record or receipt to prove that. The VA’s own internal documents uncovered by 10 Investigates indicated that – in some cases – the lost items were the result of poor record keeping.

Despite these problems, VA officials have defended portions of the program.

“RTLS has made significant improvements in the health and safety of our veterans. It's critical that we continue to move forward with the gains that we have made thus far,” said Tammy Czarnecki, the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for the VHA, during the May 9 hearing.

During an interview in late January, Greg Goins with the Cincinnati VA told 10 Investigates that RTLS technology had worked well in both surgical instrument tracking and the VA’s cardiac catheterization lab.

But he also said that VA facilities in Ohio had issued a stay on future spending of RTLS in 2017 and that the VA was not afraid to walk away from the technology.

“I think in general, it's always unacceptable to lose equipment, period. Whether it's a penny or several million dollars - or the mark you are talking about - a million bucks.” Greg Goins told 10 Investigates.

When asked directly if the VA was wasting taxpayer dollars on the program, Goins said: “I would say that my gut tells me as an administrator in the VA I will do everything I can to not allow that to happen, I can tell you just from a personal basis – the real conversations I’ve had… is that we aren't going to allow that to happen.”

10 Investigates has reached out repeatedly in the last few days with VA officials to ask about future spending with RTLS technology at VA facilities in Ohio. No one was provided for a follow-up on-camera interview and we were told that future spending is still being evaluated.

Records show items lost from Ohio VAs