The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will hold a field hearing at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center next month into maintenance and management issues at the facility, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley)’s office announced Wednesday.
“Over the past few months, since news first broke regarding the faulty HVAC system at the Northport VA, my office has been contacted by several Long Islanders regarding allegations pertaining to the Northport VA,” Zeldin said in a statement. “Any allegations regarding the care of our veterans must be taken very seriously.”
The committee has been investigating complaints from whistleblowers on a “range of issues regarding the Northport VA Medical Center for more than a month,” and September’s hearing is part of an ongoing probe into the facility, a committee staff member told the Press prior to Zeldin’s public announcement.
The probe centers around—but is not limited to—the facility’s maintenance, management, and contract work, among other issues, including reports of a faulty air duct system that spewed black particles into the facility, forcing officials to temporarily shutter five operating rooms in February. The committee hearing will also include a veteran’s recent suicide at the Northport VAMC on Aug. 21, the staffer told the Press.
The committee’s field hearing at the Northport VAMC has been scheduled for Sept. 20.
On July 29, Jeff Miller (R-FL), the committee’s chairman, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald concerning the “deteriorating state of facilities” at the Northport VAMC.
“While it’s not unusual for older ductwork to have condensation and oxidation problems, the VAMC management’s inability to solve the root cause, which is creating health and safety risks for veterans and staff, is disappointing,” Miller wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Press.
“The most troubling aspect of the whole situation is that the VAMC management reportedly became aware of the problem in mid-February, yet took no effort to notify the public, or Congress, until after numerous media reports emerged,” it continues, noting that Northport hasn’t been alone in having to shut down operating rooms due to ventilation issues. The letter cites three other similar cases.
News of the inquiry comes 10 days after a 76-year-old Peter Kaisen committed suicide at the Northport VAMC after he was allegedly turned away from the emergency room.
The New York Times was the first to report on the committee’s investigation, as well as the U.S. Navy vet’s suicide.
The Northport VAMC has been on the receiving end of a deluge of criticism since Kaisen’s death became public. In response, the hospital has said there’s no evidence that Kaisen sought treatment before ending his life. Those close to Kaisen are skeptical that he’d drive to the Northport VAMC for any reason other than for treatment.
Two people who work at the hospital told the Times that Kaisen was denied treatment. One of the Northport VA employees told the paper, “Someone dropped the ball.”
A family friend told the Press last week that they’re not on a “head-hunting” mission, but simply want to learn the truth and prevent such a tragedy from re-occurring.
Philip C. Moschitta, director of the Northport VAMC, penned a letter to Zeldin last week in which he said, “It appears that at no point that day did the veteran enter any VA buildings.”
“Additionally,” he continued, “we have not found any evidence that the Veteran sought assistance from any of our staff, including visiting the Emergency Room that day.”
The hospital’s staff would continue to review surveillance cameras to confirm whether or not Kaisen contacted the facility during the week before he died, according to the correspondence.
Jennifer DiSiena, a spokeswoman for Zeldin, who is a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, noted to the Press prior to the congressman’s public announcement of the hearing that people began contacting the congressman’s office after the Times revealed in May that the hospital’s five operating rooms had to be temporarily shuttered because of black particles emanating from air ducts.
“The past few months, our office has been working with these individuals to collect facts through meetings, phone calls and other forms of communication, to compile as much substantiation as possible as quickly as we could,” DiSiena said in a statement. “Congressman Zeldin takes these allegations regarding the care of veterans very seriously.”
The information gleaned from Zeldin’s office has been shared with the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, DiSiena added.
Miller’s letter includes reports of flooded pedestrian tunnels, damaged roofs, and a ruptured cooling tower.
“We have a good working relationship with Long Island’s congressional delegation,” a Northport VAMC spokesman said in a statement to the Press. “We stand ready to work with Congress to provide the information needed to assist them in their oversight role, and share their commitment to ensure that Long Island’s veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve.”
McDonald had until last Friday to respond to Miller’s inquiries, including any plans to repair or replace HVAC systems and results from air quality tests, but has yet to respond, a committee staffer tells the Press. A request for comment from the VA Office went unanswered as of press time.
Two Long Island Congressman—Reps. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) and Peter King (R-Seaford)—have called on officials to hold a separate investigation into Kaisen’s death. The pair wrote a joint letter to the heads of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the FBI urging a “thorough investigation.” The FBI was called to investigate Kaisen’s death because it occurred on federal property, but it’s unclear if authorities are scrutinizing allegations that Kaisen was turned away.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), who is also a member of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, is “working closely with her fellow Long Island delegation members and Northport VA officials to gather complete information about the tragic and alarming suicide that occurred outside the Northport VA facility last week,” her office said in a statement.
“Congresswoman Rice is committed to ensuring that all veterans on Long Island have access to high-quality, comprehensive physical and mental health care, and we’ll continue working to clarify the facts surrounding this incident, review Northport’s protocols for handling veterans in need of mental health care services, and determine how we can ensure that tragedies like this will be prevented in the future.”