Edwards Hines VA Hospital

U.S. Veterans Affairs

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A vermin infestation has overrun the kitchen of a suburban Chicago Veterans Affairs hospital and is reportedly so severe that cockroaches routinely crawl across countertops as cooks prepare meals. The insects have even found their way into patients’ food, employees say.

The bug invasion has attracted the attention of a U.S. senator who is demanding to know how the VA is fixing the problem. It’s just the latest scandal at an agency rocked by allegations of abuse, incompetence and the needless deaths of veterans who wait years for medical appointments.

“The workers try to brush the cockroaches off the counters, but the bugs get in the food,” said Germaine Clarno, a social worker at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in the Chicago suburb of Hines, Ill. Clarno is the local AFGE union president and has been working with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel as a whistleblower exposing secret appointment wait lists.

One veteran, in his 20s, became enraged and started swearing in disbelief, demanding to be discharged. But he would languish there another 28 days, sickened every time he had to eat a meal.

Clarno said she witnessed the problem firsthand three years ago when she saw roaches crawling on a dinner plate brought to a patient’s room. She recalled sending the food back before the veteran had a chance to see it and paying for a pizza delivery from an outside restaurant.

“It’s been like this for years, ever since anyone can remember,” Clarno said.

Dietetic technician Kelvin Gilkey has been a VA employee for 33 years. He recounted how PTSD-traumatized veterans in the mental health unit were served cockroaches on food trays on three different occasions last year. One veteran, in his 20s, became enraged and started swearing in disbelief, demanding to be discharged. But he would languish there another 28 days, sickened every time he had to eat a meal.

“I apologized and said I would provide him with a special tray but he refused to eat,” Gilkey said. “He went hungry for a couple of days until I convinced him to eat. He even refused to come out of his room and socialize with anyone. I told him I would take care of him.”

A second veteran didn’t eat for a few days either, but was lucky enough to be discharged within a week. The third man just accepted his fate that cockroaches were in his food, Gilkey said.

Kitchen employees have reportedly refused to come to work, afraid that they would inadvertently bring bugs home. The staff is already down 25 positions – food service funding was diverted toward overtime in the medical ward to fix a secret medical wait list scandal two years ago, said Gilkey, the SEIU union steward for the food service employees.

“There’s no one in the kitchen to clean,” he added. “A lot of times you have the cook, in his uniform, going upstairs to serve the meals in the hospital. He’s walking into rooms with MRSA, infections, and everything else.”

She noted that the floors and equipment appeared to be covered with a layer of grime.

Kitchen workers have been told not to take photos of the bugs, Gilkey said.

So Clarno visited the kitchen Friday to document the filth. She said her fact-finding visit was not welcomed by a food manager who called the VA police to escort her out of the area.

“The employees were saying, ‘Can you please help us, this is crazy! We don’t have the resources to deal with this,’” Clarno said.

She noted that the floors and equipment appeared to be covered with a layer of grime. Workers said they have never seen a health inspector, but once in a while, the VA will do a cursory bug spray in the area.

Gilkey said he reported the cleanliness and pest issue to the Joint Commission, a non-profit medical accreditation agency. Also on Friday, Joint Commission inspectors were at the VA, handing down numerous citations. The Commission would not immediately provide any inspection reports to Conservative Review.

In addition, a complaint was filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which opened an inquiry on March 4, documents show. One report stated that a veteran reported a cockroach in his food on two occasions in December. The case was closed on April 6 without an onsite visit by OSHA because the VA had shown proof that the problem was addressed, said Kathy Webb, area director of OSHA’s Calumet City office.

One of the most vocal critics of the VA is Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has demanded the firing of employees involved in the wait list scandal. He sent a letter to the VA last week, wanting to know what the agency has done “to ensure that veterans’ food is handled with the highest standards of cleanliness.”

The letter reads in part: “The dining environment … operations are of a questionable level of sanitation. In fact, reports of contamination, including but not limited to the persistent presence of roaches in and around the food service area, have been circulated by staff with facility leadership for years.

“I understand that these concerns have been brought to your attention, but that a resolution has yet to be reached,” he wrote.

Kirk told Conservative Review that “a veteran should NEVER be served food with a roach on their tray. It's not only deplorable to find out that a roach infestation in the veteran’s kitchen has been allowed to knowingly exist for years without remedy, but once again we learn that the merry-go-round of bullied silence and cover-up continues at Hines VA with impunity.”

The VA admitted that bugs were a problem but said it was under control:

Due to the nature of the work in the kitchen, there is a higher risk of pest activity.  With that knowledge, the Nutrition & Food Services area at Hines VA Hospital has weekly inspections, and if needed, treatments from the exterminator.  If there are any concerns outside of the weekly inspection, the exterminator is contacted and comes in to address any identified issues.

A Hines spokesperson added that exterminators were summoned six times a month during February, March and April.  

Excessive spraying with no apparent end to the problem is evidence that the cockroaches have built a resistance to the poison and millions of bugs are likely hiding out in places like the wall and kitchen machinery, said Ron Harrison, a Ph.D. entomologist with Orkin pest control.

“To have these exterminators come back on a weekly basis, something is not quite right,” he said. “It looks like they never got (the bugs) under control in the first place.”

If the extermination is done correctly, follow-up visits would be required only once a month, Harrison said.

Roaches love darkness and forage at night, so given that they’re brazenly crawling about during work hours shows that the nests are full and can’t accommodate all the bugs, Harrison said.

The only way to eradicate the problem is to set up sticky paper to catch which direction the bugs travel, then opening up adjoining walls to vacuum them out. Kitchen machinery needs to be taken apart as well and reproduction-killing bait placed in all areas. All of this involves shutting down the kitchen for hours, he said.

Gilkey’s voice cracked as he relayed his frustration at trying to get help for the veterans.

“Senior management is hiding the fact that this kitchen is infested with roaches and nothing has been done with it,” he said. “I have spent 33 years here and never would I imagine that we’d treat the veterans like we’re treating them. While we are lying in bed at night, they are out protecting the world. This hurts me.”

Tori Richards is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter who has covered many world famous stories while working for Reuters, Bloomberg, the New York Times, CBS News and The Daily among others. She has also written for Fox News, US News & World Report, and Watchdog.org. You can follow her on Twitter @newswriter2.