Chicago VA Leaves Veterans to Decompose for Months Without Burial

 In opinion, Veterans

We’ve written about the problems at the Chicago VA (Edward Hines Jr facility) before- everything from wait times to cockroaches all over the kitchen to toxic mold throughout the residences. But this is the worst yet- a whistleblower has come forward to say that the facility leaves the bodies of veterans to decompose in the morgue, sometimes up to 2 months without proper burial.

HOW DARE THEY!

In a letter to the VA Inspector General, the whistleblower accused Christopher Wirtjes, chief of Patient Administrative Services, of not properly handling the remains of veterans even though he had the money to do so.

“Some veteran’s remains have been left in our hospital morgue for 45 days or more until they are stacked to capacity at times.” Letter excerpt

Embalming generally needs to take place at least 3 days after death at the discretion of a coroner, and the body placed in a freezer until family comes to claim the body, or they are buried in a veteran’s cemetery within 60 days. But Edward Hines Jr VA does not employ embalmers or coroners.

Senator Mark Kirk, R-Ill, has demanded Wirtjes be fired, and even spoke to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. But McDonald “remained noncommittal.” Wirtjes was also reportedly behind the ridiculous “Secret wait time” list.

Senator Kirk introduced a bill to Congress entitled the “Respectful Interment for Passing Veterans Act” to force all VA facilities to provide  “expeditious and respectful provision of burial and funeral services for indigent, deceased veterans and remains of deceased veterans that are unclaimed.”

Systemic violations

Fox News reported,

On at least one occasion, a body had liquefied and the bag burst when staff had attempted to move it, said Alissa McCurley, Kirk’s deputy chief of staff.

Kirk talked to VA Secretary Bob McDonald last week in Washington and demanded the firing of Wirtjes, whom the Office of Special Counsel determined had orchestrated a secret wait list that was exposed by another whistleblower in 2014. McDonald was noncommittal, Kirk said.

Internal VA emails chronicle how a frustrated Hines clerk attempted to obtain permission from Wirtjes for burial of unclaimed veterans on three occasions.

The first email chain began on Dec. 7, 2015.

“[There is] an invoice for an unclaimed veteran that has been here for over 30 days. Please approve for burial at Abraham Lincoln,” the clerk wrote to Wirtjes and several others.

Three days later, the clerk wrote again: “Approval of unclaimed Vet D?? Status?”

On Dec. 23, the clerk wrote to human resources: “Any further on my poor unclaimed? I WILL file a police report, but I hate doing that…”

Emails from  June 14, 2016 and Aug. 29, 2016 state that two different veterans languished in the morgue for a month or more. 

A manager, who is the chief of inpatient and processing, discussed the dilemma of how a local mortuary would be paid for accepting a veteran’s body because the family did not have the money for a burial. He said he would “try to figure it out with the funeral home. … At least he would be laid to rest.”

“I have not heard anything as to the approval for funeral home pick up. It will be a month tomorrow,” the clerk responded.

Rampant Misconduct

Edward Hines Jr VA is a menace to all veterans who end up in their long term care. The facility, when confronted about the allegations, denied they were doing anything against the law, and called the  reports of mishandling of veteran’s remains “unsubstantiated.”

We call it unconscionable and it needs to be rectified immediately. Time to clean house.

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