New Director Promises to Fix Washington DC VA Medical Center

The new full-time director of the troubled Washington DC VA Medical Center promises fixes and improvements in performance.

Michael Heimall, a former administrator at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who was named the new head of the DC VA Medical Center on Irving Street in October, is the fifth person to lead the medical center since April 2017 and inherits an aging facility, 2,000 employees and a growing list of projects to improve the facility.

VA’s internal ratings system lists the DC VA Medical Center as among the worst performing in the nation, officially labelling it “high risk, low performing.”

“I want veterans to know that we are absolutely committed to providing them the best health care that we possibly can,” Heimall said.

Heimall said he is hiring additional staff to improve the medical center’s sterilization program and supply management. A series of I-Team investigations in 2017 and 2018 revealed a growing series of procedures postponed because of problems with sterilization or supply shortages. In one incident reported by the I-Team, the medical center delayed a patient’s procedure due to supply problems, even though the patient had already been placed under full anesthesia.

“We should never have a patient in an operating room under general anesthesia and have to cancel a case because we didn’t have a piece of equipment available,” Heimall said.

A summer 2018 report by the I-Team revealed shortages of parking spaces and long walks for patients with severe mobility challenges. Heimall said construction of a new parking garage is expected to be completed by March.

“It better be ready in March,” he said. “I will be very upset if it’s not. It’s on track right now.”

Heimall succeeds a series of temporary directors, who have filled the role previously held by longtime director Brian Hawkins. Hawkins was fired by the VA in 2017, shortly after the release of a scathing internal audit, which detailed mismanagement, some unsterile conditions and understaffing. Hawkins later filed a lawsuit against the agency. The suit is still pending in D.C. federal court.

Physical upgrades and expansions are needed inside the aging medical center, Heimall said. The building is more than 50 years old and suffering from recurring problems with air conditioning systems, roof leaks and equipment breakdowns. I-Team investigations in 2018 revealed HVAC problems triggered a flood on several floors of the medical center complex and created hot conditions inside some patient rooms.

“I've had the opportunity over my military career to lead a couple of hospitals that were very, very old,” Heimall said. “I'm very impressed with what the staff has done.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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