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North Texas Health Care System Included In House Hearing On VA Deaths

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - A Department of Veterans Affairs official told a House committee Monday he did not think ongoing problems reported at the North Texas Health System and other facilities are systemic. Committee members aggressively questioned VA officials though for a system characterized as rewarding personnel instead of holding them responsible for mistakes.

(credit: CBS 11 News)

At one point in the hearing in Pittsburgh, VA undersecretary Robert Petzel couldn't answer a question on what carried more weight in performance reviews, preventable deaths or meeting data goals. Committee chair Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he could make that judgment. It was unconscionable he said that bonuses would be awarded to anybody that had a death occur on their watch.

The North Texas system was one of five included in the hearing, along with facilities in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, N.Y., and Jackson, Miss. The committee has focused on bonuses received by VA executives while complaints mounted from employees, patients and families. The hearing was to examine if proper accountability was in place. It followed a visit to the facility in Dallas last month by Rep. Miller.

Dallas resident Sydney Schoellman testified in front of the committee on the death of her father Gary Wilingham. The Korean War veteran had surgery at the facility in Dallas and came out paralyzed, unable to eat or walk on his own.

Petzel responded to stories like Schoellman's with condolences and sympathy. He listed off improvements made at each facility, except Dallas. He said he's waiting for a report from a task force that inspected the facility in July.

The VA sent that task force after repeated requests from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas. Led by Jonathan Gardner, director of the Southern Arizona VA Health System, it reviewed leadership, patient safety and employee culture. A final report was expected by the end of last month.

North Texas Director Jeff Milligan attended the hearing and had prepared comments, but was not called to testify. He was not available for comment following the hearing.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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