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FACILITY -- "I was disappointed that we would have the kinds of events that went on Marion, but...we have learned from this."

Marion VA
VA chief to visit troubled vets hospital in Marion

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake said Thursday he will go to a southern Illinois VA hospital where surgeries were halted last year after a spike in patient deaths.

A personal visit will show people who live near the Marion facility that the VA is there for them, Peake said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We will ensure that we do that kind of outreach," he said.

The VA issued a report this week that said the Marion hospital's management was "dysfunctional and inefficient" and should be removed. Many of its operations and employees are in need of greater oversight or further investigation, the report said.

Peake met at the Capitol Thursday with Illinois lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second highest ranking Democrat and leader of the state's 21-member congressional delegation.

"I wanted to assure them that we acted aggressively with the best interests of the patients and that we have learned from this ... in a lesson we've applied across the VA already and will continue to do," he said.

"I was disappointed that we would have the kinds of events that went on Marion, but I wanted to assure them that we acted aggressively with the best interests of the patients, that we have learned from this," Peake said.

The VA report also found bad employee morale stemming from a variety of concerns ranging from sexual harassment, forced retirements of elderly staff and the quality of patient care, including the hiring of poor physicians.

It was prepared by a 22-member assessment team sent to Marion and it came after individual interviews with employees and managers as well as town hall meetings, including one that drew more than 140 employees.

Rep. Jerry Costello, a Belleville Democrat whose district includes many employees and patients of the hospital, suggested the Peake trip.

Lawmakers have been frustrated by how slowly the VA has reacted, but Peake is "attempting to do this right," Costello said.

"The employees at Marion do an excellent job. They're dedicated, hardworking employees," Costello said. "We want to make certain we get to the bottom of this so that we can make sure that facility is up and running and provides not only service but quality services to veterans in the area."

Peake, a former Army surgeon general, became VA secretary in December, months after the September suspension of the Marion hospital's director, Robert Morrel, and chief of staff, Dr. Joe Herman.

The trip will occur "soon," Durbin said.

"We think that restoring confidence is essential and that's an important step," he said.

Peake said he planned to install a new management team at the Marion facility by fall.

"Some of them might be some of the same people that we have now, and we will be able to make the appropriate dispositions of those who are no longer there," he said.

Durbin emphasized the need for accountability.

"Something terrible happened here (at Marion) when innocent veterans lost their lives and others were injured," the senator said. "We don't want this to ever happen again, if we can avoid that."

The VA report, which was ordered last fall at the prodding of Illinois lawmakers, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, was heavily redacted, with virtually no names and many job titles even missing in much of its narrative.

The meeting with Peake did not focus on the redacted names but on the need for making the hospital operate the way it should, Durbin said.

"If it were just a handful of people and some mismanagement, it would have been one thing, but it turned out to be some problems within the system," he said. "And what they're going to learn from Marion is going to be helpful to other VA facilities, particularly those like Marion that are in more rural and sparsely populated areas. They are the ones with greater challenges."

The most troubling aspect of the report was "what appeared to be a leadership lapse," Peake said.

The widows of Robert Shank III and James Marshall have filed lawsuits against the federal government, which runs the Veterans Affairs system, and seek a combined $22 million in damages. Shank, 50, bled to death following gallbladder surgery at the Marion hospital. Marshall, 61, died of a blood infection, six days after a lymph node biopsy there.


Why did it take so long for any action. Another example of poor treatment. I am just gald that most VA hospitals take care of Vets and provide quaity care.