AUSTIN (KXAN) – Medical equipment, TVs, cellphones, and a John Deere tractor are among the $6.2 million worth of taxpayer-purchased items missing from Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and properties across Texas, documents obtained by KXAN News reveal.
KXAN compiled the information through Freedom of Information Act requests to the VA. The records show 4,957 pieces of equipment categorized as lost or stolen, which were still unaccounted for by the VA over a roughly five-year period from 2010 to the later part of 2015. The equipment belonged to VA hospitals, medical centers, clinics, and other properties such as cemeteries across Texas.
In Central Texas, records show more than $250,000 worth of items listed as lost or stolen from October 2009 (the start of the 2010 fiscal year) into August of 2015. The lists show the Dallas area missing about $3.2 million worth of items from Oct. 1, 2010 through 2015. Items missing in Houston have a value of more than $1 million and lost/stolen items in the San Antonio area total $1.5 million, the documents show.
“What that list shows is over the last five years, items that during our annual review process were not where they should be,” said Jack DuFon, VA chief logistics officer for VISN 17, which is the VA health care network covering most of Texas.
The types of missing inventory ranges from medical equipment such as a blood pressure monitoring system and medical carts to IT equipment and electronics such as TVs and monitors.
VA officials point out that the missing equipment makes up a small percentage of the total inventory the department tracks. VA officials say paperwork issues are often to blame. For example, an item might be in the repair shop while staff are taking regular inventory. Still, the list KXAN requested-covering most of the state-shows items that remained lost or stolen when the report was generated, according to the VA.
“Of the [$646 million] in Non-expendable equipment assets, VISN 17 reported less than 1 percent of the assets as unaccounted over a five-year period,” wrote VISN 17 spokesperson Kathryn Gifford in an email to KXAN News. “In fact, many times, after the equipment is listed as unaccounted for, staff members locate the equipment in different locations from the original and that equipment comes off the list.”
DuFon also points out that VA hospitals and other locations are tracking about 230,000 pieces of equipment in a given year. So, nearly 5,000 missing items also amounts to a small percentage of the total. Dufon also says the $6.2 million in missing equipment is compared to $930 million of equipment that the VA owns in Texas.
“So, you have items that get turned in and there is a process used to document those items. And as you can imagine, with the large volume, you don’t always capture every single one that’s been turned in,” said DuFon.
DuFon also says he believes many of the items listed as lost and stolen have already passed their useful lives. For example, pagers originally purchased in the mid-2000s are listed as missing.
“I believe that many of these items were turned in, traded in and the paperwork was not documented properly,” said DuFon.
Although paperwork issues or misplaced equipment could account for some of the missing items, VA leadership is also aware of about $750,000 worth of items reported as stolen throughout the state.
“We’re in the business of taking care of patients and we’re in the need of equipment and items that we have in our possession for the provision of high-quality medical care,” said DuFon. “This is a concern to me, this is a concern to hospital administrators and accountable officers across health care.”
A John Deere tractor is one of the things DuFon says someone stole, along with a Gator utility vehicle, and some trailers.
“I did look into those and discovered that there was a break-in at the national cemetery [in the Houston area], which is where these items were being stored,” said DuFon.
KXAN News brought the findings to Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who has taken up several veterans’ issues in Washington D.C.
“That’s a lot money, that’s a lot of stealing,” said Carter, a former judge. “Stealing is punishable by the law and if it all took place in Texas, we have a place for them. But the reality is, it’s bigger than that. It’s another mismanagement situation at the VA. And that’s the real crisis at the VA.”
Both Congressman Carter and a veteran KXAN spoke with view the issue as broader than missing equipment.
“Spending is out of control and it may be just for reasons like this that stuff gets lost, destroyed, has to be replaced, and they don’t know where the money goes,” said Milton Ritter, an U.S. Air Force veteran and former airline pilot. “I think it’s just accountability.”
Ritter spent months disputing a billing error, which amounted to a few dollars. Ritter says he got his money back after months of arguing.
The VA already has processes in place for tracking and investigating missing equipment.
“One of the requirements that we have of all of our facilities based on VA policy is to do an annual equipment inventory,” said DuFon. “So, we have staff that go out and have the responsibility of identifying all these assets and documenting if they’re missing.”
DuFon also says a number of improvements should improve the accuracy of VA’s tracking of its assets.
“The most notable [improvement] is a real-time locator system that we’re in the process of implementing in VISN 17 and across the nation. What this system will do is allow us in real time to know where our assets are,” said DuFon. “At any point in time, if we need to go locate something, we’ll have a handheld scanner, it will tell us where that item is located.”
He says the VA will be able to configure the system to notify staff or police if the item starts to move. The system is already in the process of rolling out, but should be active in 2017, according to DuFon.
DuFon says other improvements have already been made over the years. He says the VA did not use to track much of its IT equipment that it deemed disposable, but now it tracks all IT equipment.