Northport Veterans Administration Medical Center officials appearing before a Congressional oversight committee Tuesday rejected claims that a 78-year-old U.S. Navy veteran was denied service before he committed suicide last month at the facility.
The determination was based upon a review of surveillance footage, emergency room records, and phone logs, officials told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Surveillance footage recorded the vet, Peter Kaisen, on the hospital’s grounds for 12 minutes on Sunday, Aug. 21, from the moment his vehicle entered the campus, Northport VAMC officials said. At no point did surveillance footage place the Islip man at the hospital’s Emergency Department, they claimed.
“Allegations that he was turned away from our Emergency Department are false,” said Dr. Joan E. McInerney, NY/NJ network director for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
There was also no indication that Kaisen attempted to sign in at the facility’s welcome desk, either, officials said. The only gap in surveillance was during the moments Kaisen was in an adjacent parking lot near a wooded area, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Phillip C. Moschitta, Northport VAMC’s director, told seven committee members in attendance that there was “definitive” evidence to support the VA’s accounting of events. He said he’s awaiting a final report from the FBI, the lead agency that investigated Kaisen’s death.
The hospital’s account is in stark contrast to allegations made by two whistleblowers last month. The anonymous hospital workers told The New York Times that Kaisen was denied service that Sunday. The same report claimed Kaisen was frustrated that he was unable to see a mental health physician.
About 100 observers packed the Northport VAMC’s auditorium for the committee’s much-anticipated field hearing. Kaisen’s widow, Joan Kaisen, was also in attendance. Like a handful of people who insisted they be permitted to address the panel, Joan was rebuffed when committee members addressed her husband’s death.
While the hearing focused largely on Kaisen’s much-publicized suicide, Northport VAMC officials also discussed the closure of five operating rooms this spring due to a faulty HVAC system, alleged financial malfeasance associated with billing procedures, as well as the deaths of two other people linked to the hospital.
“Through the years, up until very recently, I continued to hear constituents in my district who have nothing but the best to say about the quality of care that they have received here at Northport VA,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Selden), who along with Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), is one of two Long Islanders on the committee. “It is over the course of the last few months that we started to receive an increase in feedback from individuals that resulted in some pretty serious allegations, which is why we’re here to get answers.”
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But Kaisen’s suicide took precedent.
Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) peppered VA officials with questions about emergency room sign-in procedures. At one point he produced a paper log that patients are required to fill out at the emergency wing’s welcome desk. Both Moschitta and McInerney said they were unaware of the specific sign-in procedures inside the Emergency Department.
“You still use paper like this here?” Miller inquired.
“Yes, there are some paper documents,” Moschitta responded.
“What happens if this gets thrown away?” Miller added, crumpling the paper in his hands to mimic its being discarded.
“You would still have the patient in front of you,” McInerney said.
“Unless they went to the parking lot,” Miller interjected, referring to Kaisen’s death.
Besides surveillance footage, there was also forensic evidence collected by investigators indicating how long Kaisen was in a specific area, Moschitta said.
“There are no breaks in the video,” he said, adding that video showed Kaisen passing the hospital’s checkpoint all the way until he parked his vehicle. The parking lot, however, is not equipped with surveillance cameras, he testified.
“So, it was physically impossible to go from the incident to the ED (Emergency Department),” he said of the 12 minutes Kaisen purportedly spent on the campus.
Moschitta, who declined to go into the specifics of Kaisen’s case, took offense to claims that his employees would intentionally spur a veteran.
“Our staff would never do something like that—that’s not our history,” he said. “It’s just very insulting to think that.” He believed the evidence will “set the record straight” that Kaisen was not turned away.
“Northport has a long history of providing excellent clinical and mental health at our main facility and our five community clinics,” McInerney added.
When questions turned to the operating room’s HVAC system’s problems that began in February, Moschitta apologized for failing to inform Long Island’s Congressional delegation, who read about the rust particles spewing from the vents in a Times article in May.
The hospital closed all five operating rooms in March for safety reasons and performed a temporary fix. Of the 154 procedures that were postponed due to the closures, 22 patients have yet to undergo operations, choosing instead to wait for the operating rooms to reopen, officials testified. All five operating rooms reopened in June.
“At no time, even when we had a discharge, was air quality below standard,” insisted Moschitta, who hired an outside company to analyze the air particles.
Moschitta told the House committee that a contract to permanently solve the HVAC issue will be finalized in the near future.
In addition, Moschitta vehemently denied claims that the Northport VAMC was profiting from an outreach program designed to bring former patients back into the fold.
“These encounters are not billable,” Moschitta testified, “so there’s no money generated…Clearly there was no fraud here.” The director said he welcomed an outside audit.
Such “falsehoods” do a disservice to veterans who “feel they’re coming to a place they can’t feel safe in,” Moschitta said. “That is why I’m very happy you’re here…We’ve got to clear the air. I don’t want any employee at this medical center, or any volunteer, or any patient to think anything less than we’re the best that there is for them.
“We always try to improve,” he added, “that’s our goal.”
Northport VAMC officials also addressed claims about the deaths of two other people associated with the facility. One was a veteran who worked on-site and whose death reportedly went unnoticed for three days. The Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office ruled out suicide and foul play. In the other incident, a patient who had been discharged died off campus, Moschitta said.
Afterward, Joan Kaisen said she was “very happy” with the proceedings, specifically with the amount of time devoted to her husband’s death.
“I think they’ve got a wide spectrum that they have to handle, but I feel good because he was one of the pinnacle points of this investigation,” she told reporters. “So that gives good solace to me and my family.”
Yet Kaisen’s family and friends remain skeptical that the vet would have made the trek from his Islip home to Northport VAMC only to end his life.
Tom Farley, his friend of 40 years, noted that Kaisen hadn’t been treated for mental illness and might have been unaware of the services the hospital offered.
“I’m very disappointed about the way they’re trying to say he was never here,” Farley said. “It was 12 minutes…[Moschitta] won’t actually answer how long that 12 minutes he was actually on film…In 12 minutes you can come in, try to get into the emergency room and leave. Twelve minutes is a long time.”