The Department of Veterans Affairs can’t seem to keep up with the burden of their heavy workload. They’ve taken flack for administrative corruption, long wait times, and even negligent responses to suicidal soldiers seeking assistance.
The latest scandal to break paints another bleak picture. A whistle-blower at an Illinois VA hospital has leaked news that bodies of dead veterans have been left unclaimed in the morgue for up to two months.
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Complaints were lodged with the VA’s inspector general last month about the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital’s handling of cadavers. In some cases, veterans’ families had not claimed the bodies. The complaint names Christopher Wirtjes, chief of Patient Administrative Services. “The Chief of PAS has the funds available,” the complaint reads, “yet has no sense of urgency to lay the veteran to rest.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has called for Wirtjes to be fired.
“Hines VA — the hospital that has been overrun with cockroaches and mold and left vets waiting for care for months on secret wait lists, has reached a new low in the treatment of our veterans,” Kirk said in an interview with Fox. “We now have reports of bodies being left to decompose in the morgue for months on end.”
“Some veteran’s remains have been left in our hospital morgue for 45 days or more until they are stacked to capacity at times,” reads the complaint.
The level of decay was so pronounced that at least one of the bodies had liquefied. When the staff tried to remove it, the body-bag burst.
Kirk has taken his concerns to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Wirtjes has been under scrutiny before. The Office of Special Counsel found Wirtjes had devised a secret wait list that was exposed in 2014.
The paper trail for this debacle seems even more damning.
“[There is] an invoice for an unclaimed veteran that has been here for over 30 days. Please approve for burial at Abraham Lincoln,” a clerk wrote to Wirtjes.
“Approval of unclaimed Vet D?? Status?” He wrote again several days later.
When no response came, he asked more bluntly:“Any further on my poor unclaimed? I WILL file a police report, but I hate doing that…”
Emails from June 14, 2016 and Aug. 29, 2016 state that two different veterans languished in the morgue for a month or more.
A manager at the hospital finally said he would “try to figure it out with the funeral home. … At least he would be laid to rest.”
“I have not heard anything as to the approval for funeral home pick up. It will be a month tomorrow,” the clerk responded.
The spokesman for the hospital, Rick Fox, disputed the allegations: “We take whistle-blower allegations very seriously and absolutely agree that all of our veterans deserve dignity and respect, in life and in death. While our investigation into this matter is still ongoing, we have found allegations related to consistent problems with dignified and timely burials to be unsubstantiated. However, we have taken this opportunity to review our policies and procedures and are currently working to improve them.”
Senator Kirk, though, isn’t finished with this. He’s the chairman of the Appropriations Committee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and last week he introduced a bill called the “Respectful Interment for Passing Veterans Act.” The bill would require “expeditious and respectful provision of burial and funeral services for indigent, deceased veterans and remains of deceased veterans that are unclaimed.”