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VA spinal clinic chief was transferred, Special Counsel notes

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 25. 2018 9:16PM

MANCHESTER — The latest report into problems with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester identifies the physician who oversaw the spinal cord clinic and shows that despite years of ongoing issues, Dr. Muhammad Huq was never fired but eventually transferred to another VA facility.

The Office of Special Counsel reports that in 2008 nurses at the VA alerted top officials about Huq, who was then chief of the Manchester spinal cord unit.

His questionable behavior — the copying and pasting of patient chart notes — continued for years, the Special Counsel said.

Years later, when the VA opened internal investigations into problems at Manchester, inspectors insisted no harm resulted from Huq’s actions, even though they did not review all of his patient files, the Special Counsel found.

“The findings regarding Dr. Huq are flawed due to their inconsistency,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote to President Trump in a letter dated Thursday.

The most serious criticisms of the Manchester VA have always centered on the spinal clinic. Critics say a high percentage of spinal clinic patients suffered a loss of spinal cord function known as myelopathy.

Of the 170 patients at the Manchester spinal unit, 100 had some degree of myelopathy.

Dr. Chima Ohaegbulam, a physician at New England Boston Hospital, told the Boston Globe in July that such prevalence of myelopathy is only seen in Third World countries.

In a statement issued Thursday, a VA spokesman acknowledged that an unnamed physician cut and pasted notes several years ago.

“The practice was identified and discontinued. The physician was disciplined. A review of cases did not identify any patient harm related to the incidents where this occurred,” said VA spokesman Curt Cashour.

The four whistleblower doctors say that Huq’s practice of copying and pasting chart notes contributed to the high incidence of myelopathy, the Special Counsel wrote.

“The chart is a living record,” said one of the whistleblowers, Dr. Erik Funk, in an interview. A physician should observe a patient at each visit, and each visit should get its own annotation, Funk said.

Cashour said independent, third-party clinical reviews are underway for every case that whistleblowers highlighted; 99 of 151 reviews are complete.

The Special Counsel said nurses raised concern about Huq in 2008. But the VA didn’t act until 2010, when Huq received “verbal counseling,” the report said. In early 2012, he was counseled again.

That July, he was reassigned to primary care. In August 2015, the VA transferred Huq to another VA facility, wrote Kerner. The Union Leader could not confirm Huq’s current position.

The Special Counsel found several problems when it came to the VA’s investigation into Huq.

• The VA did not interview Dr. Ohaegbulam, even though he ended up treating several of the Manchester VA patients with myelopathy.

• The VA initially claimed that no patients were harmed by Huq’s copying and pasting, but then the VA admitted it had not reviewed charts from 2002 to 2008.

“Given the seriousness of the medical issues involved, a review of Dr. Huq’s entire history with the unit seems appropriate,” wrote Kerner, who noted that records are maintained for 75 years.

Funk said accountability is the problem at the VA.

“No one is fired hardly,” he said. “The VA protects its own.”

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