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California and the West

State Veterans Affairs Chief Quits Amid Turmoil

Cabinet: Move follows charge by a Barstow VA home doctor that superiors pushed him to change the cause of death of a resident.

May 16, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — State Veterans Affairs Secretary Tomas Alvarado, drawing fire for the controversial death of a World War II soldier at the Veterans Home at Barstow, resigned abruptly on Monday.

"I believe it is in our best interest to put an end to the process before it harms your administration," Alvarado told Gov. Gray Davis.

The resignation letter to the governor came three hours after a physician who had tried to save the dying man charged that superiors in the Veterans Affairs Department pressured him to change his report to say that the man died of a heart attack, rather than from choking.

The doctor, Liem C. Vu, said he refused to change his report and subsequently was told by department officials that he was being terminated for alleged mistreatment of other patients at the home.

At a Senate committee hearing, Alvarado testified that he had directed that Vu be put on administrative leave but denied that he ordered him fired.

Vu's allegation that he was pressured to rewrite the report on the death Feb. 11 of Barstow home resident Paul Stevens, 76, a World War II infantry sergeant, surfaced at a second confirmation hearing for Alvarado of the Senate Rules Committee.

Later, Vu, a physician who has worked at several state departments for the last 16 years, elaborated on his allegations in a telephone interview.

At the hearing, Alvarado, a former Marine who twice was wounded in the Vietnam War, appeared to try to shift responsibility from himself to subordinates in an effort to keep his Cabinet-level job, continuing a pattern he set last week.

Angered, Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) ripped into Alvarado about the old soldier's death.

"You'd have to refer to our administrator, who was pretty much in charge," Alvarado answered at one point.

Burton thundered back, "You're trying to keep a job. You know this is an issue and you pass the buck to everybody." At another point, he barked, "You don't even appear to inform yourself."

Alvarado, who had earlier been anonymously accused of sexual harassment of female employees--allegations that he denied--had no support on the committee for confirmation.

Later, Burton called him an "embarrassment to veterans" and told reporters there was virtually no chance Alvarado would be confirmed by the Senate and should resign immediately.

Immediately after the committee abruptly adjourned without voting, Alvarado rushed to Davis' office. Two hours later, he sent the governor a letter asking that his name be withdrawn as secretary of veterans affairs.

Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman, said the governor accepted the letter and intends to start a "nationwide search" for a replacement.

Last week, Davis said he was fully supportive of Alvarado, even though the governor had personally ordered a surprise investigation several days earlier into the death of Stevens.

Department officials have said that Stevens, an amputee who had heart disease and several other serious illnesses, had died of a heart attack while eating lunch in his room at the 180-bed nursing home.

But the San Bernardino County coroner found that the death resulted from "choking on food," a piece of broccoli that had wedged in Stevens' air passage.

Officials at the home did not report the death to the state Department of Health Services, which licenses the Barstow facility, because it was of natural cause and therefore not required to be reported.

The cause of death is important because if it was other than natural, it would raise the question of whether Stevens was being properly cared for at the home.

The Barstow facility, which depends on Medi-Cal and Medicare funds for its aging and disabled patients, was in jeopardy of losing its license earlier this year after a long investigation into shoddy patient care and other issues.

At the confirmation hearing, Vu's charges of pressure to change his report on the death surfaced from what sources described as an interview with Vu and a letter from his labor union representative.

Vu said he was urgently summoned Feb. 11 to tend to Stevens, who had collapsed and had apparently vomited while eating lunch in his room.

The physician said Stevens had no pulse and was rapidly turning blue. He said he took a number of emergency steps, including ordering that the man's mouth be cleared and that he be hooked to a heart monitor and given heart shock treatment.

In his notes, Vu said the man made a "gasp" and that pink returned to his skin color. Paramedics arrived and took Stevens to Barstow Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Vu said he was put on paid administrative leave March 28 in connection with what he called alleged shortcomings in his treatment of six other patients. He denies the charges and has asked for a department personnel hearing.

On April 3, he said, he was summoned to a meeting with the Barstow home's deputy administrator, William Rigole, and a department lawyer.

Vu said Rigole told him that "if you said that [Stevens] was found dead in bed of a heart attack, then your administrative leave will be over soon and you go back to work."

"I did not change the report," Vu said.

Neither Rigole nor other department officials returned a reporter's calls for comment.

In the hearing, Alvarado said Vu "has a history of inconsistencies when it comes to documentation."

In the interview, Vu said the cases for which he is being fired involve "very, very minor" accusations that did not involve any patient's quality of care.

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