A former chief of staff at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center voluntarily resigned in 2013 under the threat of being disciplined over the deaths of three cancer patients in the hospital’s embattled gastrointestinal clinic, the VA confirmed this week.
Dr. Luke Stapleton, 61, stepped down from the position March 10, 2013, but hospital spokesman Pete Scovill said Tuesday that the hematologist remains on the medical center’s payroll. According to online records, Stapleton’s salary was $278,267 in 2012 before he was promoted to chief of staff.
Scovill declined to elaborate on a statement by the VA on Monday night that confirmed Stapleton’s resignation and refused to make the doctor available for an interview Tuesday.
Gina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., said that as of Monday no other senior executives in Augusta have faced administrative action for the deaths or for 5,100 patients having endoscopy consultations delayed in the hospital’s gastrointestinal clinic from 2011 to 2012.
“VA is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve,” Jackson said in a statement. “The Veterans Health Administration is reviewing administrative actions for Augusta VA Medical Center.”
Stapleton became chief of staff July 5, 2010, and spent two years in the job before the VA’s Southeast Network, which is based in Atlanta, initiated a review of colonoscopy procedures in Augusta dating back to 2006, according to an internal memo obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
From 2007 to 2012, Stapleton served as the VA’s Southeast Network Medical Officer and before that, he was the network clinical program director. In that role, he provided leadership and guidance throughout the network on all VA and Defense Department issues and initiatives and coordinated and facilitated network efforts in oncology services, according to an online Augusta VA newsletter.
Today, he is under investigation by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs for his role in screening, surveillance and diagnostic endoscopies being delayed while he served as chief of staff.
In January, the committee wrote to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to request a copy of all minutes from meetings involving Stapleton, current Chief of Staff Dr. Michael Spencer and Associate Director Richard “Toby” Rose.
The request came four months after the committee asked for a copy of all performance reviews, pay bonuses and disciplinary actions filed since 2007 for the administration of former Director Rebecca Wiley.
Parts of the request are just now being delivered.
“This is more shocking proof that the VA is in dire need of a culture change when it comes to accountability,” Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said of Stapleton resigning but remaining employed in Augusta. “Let’s be clear: allowing an employee to voluntarily switch from one job to another does not qualify as accountability.”
Miller said Stapleton’s resignation raises questions about why it is taking so long for the VA to hold employees responsible for preventable deaths.
“These deaths have been public since November of 2013, yet nearly four months later no Augusta employee has been held accountable in any way, according to the evidence we’ve seen,” he said. “We know VA leaders have become very fond of talking about how they hold employees and executives accountable. Now it’s time for them to prove they mean what they say.”
After the Atlanta network launched its review, it notified the VA central office on Sept. 1, 2012. A conference call was immediately held to assess the delay and help the facility develop action plans to fix the problem.
Health care administrators at the Augusta VA said in January that the hospital has resolved all delayed consultations. Among the steps the medical center said it took to correct the backlog included adding weekend clinics; leasing and purchasing 21 extra scopes; and hiring additional personnel to staff four full-time GI suites in two operating rooms to do as many as 90 procedures a day.