While people across the country are speaking out, outraged by what they see as substandard patient care at Veterans Administration hospitals, a former high-ranking doctor at the Mather VA Hospital said veterans deserve better than the treatment they get there.
Before the Air Force sent him to medical school, Dr. Matthew Bonzani flew F-15E Strike Eagles, including combat missions during Desert Storm. Suffering multiple injuries while on active duty, Bonzani felt a special connection to his patients when he became Chief of Anesthesiology at the Mather VA Hospital.
"You can't compare with what a lot of these guys have seen," Bonzani said. "They've been through much more than I have."
According to Bonzani, part of the reason he lost his job in 2010 was for taking off four weeks to recover from knee surgery. He's now suing the VA and speaking out about what he says went on behind the scenes.
"We were short staffed the entire time I worked there, and that leads to more problems like a snowball rolling down a hill," Bonzani said.
He said the limited staffing meant barely having enough people to perform procedures, so if one person called in sick, surgeries would have to be cancelled. He said that happened a lot.
"I personally know of patients who had their surgeries cancelled up to three times because of these problems and staffing shortages," Bonzani said.
One quick fix was to hire short-term per diem physicians to fill in, but he claims some of those doctors didn't always measure up.
A former doctor at the Mather VA Hospital said he lost his job for taking time off in order to recovery from knee surgery. (Wednesday, May 21, 2014) News10
"Unfortunately, we had an incident where one of our per diem physicians fell asleep during the surgery while his patient was under anesthesia," Bonzani said.
In that case, Bonzani said the doctor was not allowed to return, but it was hardly an isolated incident.
"There was another per diem anesthesiologist that did the exact same thing. And unfortunately, despite this ongoing behavior, the VA kept him on as a regular per diem physician," Bonzani said.
News10 contacted the hospital after hours and were told they would not be able to provide a statement Wednesday night. A hospital spokesperson said the hospital administration would review the claims made by Bonzani and provide a comment.
However, earlier in the day, Mather Chief of Medicine Dr. David Siegel spoke to News10 about criticism of his facility.
"Our goal is to provide the best possible care, and frankly I think we do a good job of that," Siegel said.
Bonzani said it will take a national outcry to make a difference in the quality of care veterans receive.
"These men and women are our heroes, and it's time everybody stands up and says that this is enough," Bonzani said.
UPDATE: Thursday May 22, 2014 - Mather VA Hospital Officials Respond
Officials at the Mather VA Hospital responded Thursday to Bonzani's allegations.
On Wednesday, Bonzani spoke at length about the consequences of understaffing.
"You have a very fragile state where if one thing goes wrong, for instance an anesthesiologist calls in sick, or one of their children are ill, or they get in a car accident on the way to work, then that whole operating room needs to be shut down, and those surgeries need to be cancelled because there's no one to do them." Bonzani said.
The hospital's current director David Stockwell, who has been there less than a year, said while the number of anesthesiologists on staff has more than doubled, staffing is always a challenge.
"I think it's fair to say that the VA can have challenges along the way for access and growth," Stockwell said.
Because Bonzani is suing the hospital, Stockwell would not comment on the period from 2007 to 2010 described in the lawsuit. But, he did say the last three years have shown dramatic improvements in the number of canceled procedures, including this past year which saw more than 2,800 surgeries.
"This last year of those 2,812 cases, four times that happened where we had to cancel that surgery," Stockwell said.
Regarding Bonzani's claims that anesthesiologists were sleeping during surgeries, Stockwell said at least one of the reports of an anesthesiologist sleeping during surgery was investigated and could not be substantiated. He did not deny the possibility of similar cases in the past, but he insists no current Mather physician involved in surgeries has ever been found to be sleeping during a procedure.
Stockwell also said the current average wait at Mather for an elective surgery is 45 days. He said that significantly outperforms the national average for VA hospitals.