Feds: Probe into deaths at VA hospital is 'top priority'

ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE and MICHAEL BALSAMO

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors said Friday a sweeping criminal probe into a number of suspicious deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Virginia would be their "top priority."

Bill Powell, the U.S. attorney in West Virginia, said his office is involved in a "comprehensive federal criminal investigation" into the deaths of up to 11 patients at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg. At least two of the deaths have been ruled homicides, according to attorneys representing families of men who died.

The announcement comes about a week after federal prosecutors indicted a former pathologist at another VA hospital in Arkansas — who is accused of being impaired while on duty — in connection with the deaths of three patients. Authorities say he misdiagnosed the patients and later altered records to conceal his mistakes.

There is no evidence to suggest the cases are related, but the investigations are yet another black eye for the government's second-largest department, which is responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 government-run health facilities.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Donald Trump repeatedly railed against the care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, promising to fix the agency. He signed legislation that made it easier to fire VA employees and speed disability appeals and expanded the Veterans Choice program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the VA medical system at government expense.

The agency's former director was fired last year in the wake of a bruising ethics scandal and a mounting rebellion within the agency, and the doctor who Trump nominated to replace him had to withdraw his nomination amid accusations of misconduct.

Robert Wilkie, the current Veterans Affairs secretary, who has been in his post since last July, has called for an expedited investigation into the suspicious deaths in West Virginia.

"We fully understand the desire for a speedy resolution and need for closure," Powell said.

Powell said the investigation, being conducted by federal prosecutors and the FBI, would be his office's "top priority" and that the probe began as soon as potential criminal activity was discovered. The Veterans Administration's inspector general is also investigating.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he spoke directly with Attorney General William Barr about the deaths and told Barr in a letter that he has "grave concerns over the pace of the investigation."

Two bodies were already exhumed as part of the investigation and the FBI has contacted a third family to exhume another body as part of the probe, Manchin told reporters on a conference call Friday. Earlier this week, the Democrat said VA officials had told him a "person of interest" was no longer in contact with any veterans at the facility.

The VA inspector general told Manchin's office about the opening of a medical and criminal investigation of the hospital in July 2018, after at least nine patients were diagnosed with unexplained low blood sugar, the senator said. He toured the hospital Friday and spoke with staffers and the medical center's director, Glenn R. Snider Jr.

"We're going to find out how this could have happened and who did it," Manchin said.

In the deaths that attorneys said have been ruled homicides, 82-year-old former Army Sgt. Felix Kirk McDermott was wrongly injected with a fatal dose of insulin at the hospital in April 2018, according to a notice of a pending lawsuit. An attorney representing the family of George Nelson Shaw Sr., an 81-year-old retired member of the Air Force, said he too had died at the hospital in April 2018 from a wrongful insulin injection.

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Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Shelbyville, Kentucky contributed to this report.