On 30 September 2016, the official-looking Tribunist.com web site published an article reporting that a backlogged Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital morgue in Chicago had left the remains of deceased veterans scandalously “stacked to capacity at times”:
The latest scandal to break paints another bleak picture. A whistle-blower at an Illinois VA hospital has leaked news that bodies of dead veterans have been left unclaimed in the morgue for up to two months … The level of decay was so pronounced that at least one of the bodies had liquefied. When the staff tried to remove it, the body-bag burst.
Complaints were lodged with the VA’s inspector general last month about the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital’s handling of cadavers. In some cases, veterans’ families had not claimed the bodies. The complaint names Christopher Wirtjes, chief of Patient Administrative Services. “The Chief of PAS has the funds available,” the complaint reads, “yet has no sense of urgency to lay the veteran to rest.” … “Some veteran’s remains have been left in our hospital morgue for 45 days or more until they are stacked to capacity at times,” reads the complaint.
Kirk has taken his concerns to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Wirtjes has been under scrutiny before. The Office of Special Counsel found Wirtjes had devised a secret wait list that was exposed in 2014.
The Tribunist site is not (as implied) tied to a major newspaper such as the Chicago Tribune, and the image appended to their article was an unrelated photograph from 2010 that had nothing to do with VA burial backlogs and misleadingly suggested that claims about dozens of rotting veterans’ corpses stacked on shelves awaiting burial or release in the Chicago VA morgue had been photographically documented:
The claim wasn’t entirely fabricated, however. On 26 September 2016 WBBM-TV reported on allegations that the burial of two unclaimed bodies at a VA morgue in Chicago had been delayed:
The Department of Veterans Affairs investigated the claims echoed by WBBM and the Tribunist and maintained that although some isolated veteran burial issues may have occurred in Chicago, “allegations related to consistent problems with dignified and timely burials [are] unsubstantiated”:
Internal emails reveal at least two unclaimed vets sat inside the morgue for at least 30 days this summer, allowing the bodies to badly decompose.
The VA said an investigation continues but signaled it has not uncovered any widespread problem.
“We take whistleblower allegations very seriously and absolutely agree that all of our veterans deserve dignity and respect, in life and in death. While our investigation into this matter is still ongoing, we have found allegations related to consistent problems with dignified and timely burials to be unsubstantiated. However, we have taken this opportunity to review our policies and procedures and are currently working to improve them,” a spokesperson said.
Claims about the VA morgue in Chicago so far remain localized and have to do with the burial of two veterans whose bodies were left unclaimed by relatives. We contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a spokesperson told us that the morgue had a capacity of nine and currently held two decedents (neither of whom had been there for more than eight days):
Honoring the men and women who nobly served our nation — in both life and death — is a solemn obligation the Department of Veterans Affairs takes seriously. Consequently, when allegations surfaced that some Veterans who succumbed to illness under the care of Edward Hines Jr VA Hospital may not have been buried in a timely manner, an immediate investigation was launched.
While that investigation is ongoing, preliminary results reveal no evidence of lack of timely final care. Staff at Hines VA Hospital conducted a fact-finding investigation that shows over the last two years, the vast majority — more than 95 percent — of Veterans’ remains are being respectfully handled within seven days, and more than 99 percent within 30 days. Additionally, VA’s Office of Medical Inspector (OMI) spent significant time at the facility interviewing employees and reviewing related materials. And while we are awaiting OMI’s final report, we remain confident that our Veterans have been receiving dignified and timely burials.
While rare, there have been exceptions in which decisions and requests by next of kin created delays. It is in this area where Hines has already begun improving its policies and procedures to determine when to declare a Veteran’s remains as unclaimed and how to ensure more timely burials for these exceptions.
Once a final report from OMI is complete, the VA will take additional actions as appropriate.