Investigators Say Impaired Clinician Recorded Wrong Diagnoses
FAYETTEVILLE, AR – A physician employed by the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks here was indicted by a federal grand jury on a range of charges, including three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of veterans.
The arrest and indictment were jointly announced in late August by the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas and Michael Missal, the VA’s inspector general.
In a press release, the agencies said that Robert Morris Levy, MD, who worked at the Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Medical Services for 13 years until his termination in 2018, was arrested after a year-long investigation. Law enforcement officials allege that false and misleading information he entered into medical records, possibly while impaired, led to the deaths of three veterans.
In addition to the three involuntary manslaughter charges, Levy was indicated on 12 counts of wire fraud, 12 counts of mail fraud and four counts of making false statements in certain matters.
VA is continuing the Arkansas investigation, and more patient deaths could be linked to the pathologist’s impairment, officials said. Media reports noted that VA officials have told members of Congress and investigators that misdiagnoses by the pathologist involved more than 3,000 cases and could have played a role in at least 15 deaths.
“The arrest of Dr. Levy was accomplished as a result of the strong leadership of the US Attorney’s Office and the extensive work of special agents of the VA Office of Inspector General, supported by the medical expertise of the OIG’s healthcare inspection professionals,” Missal stated. “These charges send a clear signal that anyone entrusted with the care of veterans will be held accountable for placing them at risk by working while impaired or through other misconduct. Our thoughts are with the veterans and their families affected by Dr. Levy’s actions.”
Levy held a medical license issued by the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure issued in 1997.
The U.S. attorney’s office and the VA OIG said that Levy was interviewed in 2015 by a fact-finding panel after reports that he was under the influence of alcohol while on duty. Although he denied the allegations then, in 2016, Levy appeared to be intoxicated while on duty, and a subsequent drug and alcohol test revealed his blood alcohol content was .396.0 mg/dL.
As a result, the Fayetteville VA summarily suspended the pathologist’s medical privileges and issued him a written notice of removal and revocation of clinical privileges. Levy acknowledged that the pending proposed removal and revocation of clinical privileges was “due to unprofessional conduct related to high blood alcohol content while on duty” and in July 2016, he voluntarily entered a three-month in-patient treatment program, which he completed in October 2016, according to law enforcement agencies.
At the end of his treatment program, Levy executed a contract with the Mississippi Physician Health Program and the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure in anticipation of returning to practice medicine at the Fayetteville VA; in it, he agreed to maintain sobriety to ensure his ability to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety to patients. Specially, he said he would “abstain completely from the use of . . . alcohol and other mood-altering substances” and to submit to random urine and/or blood drug screens. He returned to work at the VA October 2016.
As part of the contract, Levy randomly provided urine specimens and blood samples for drug testing from November 2016 through June 2018, with each blood sample and urine specimen found negative for the presence of drugs and alcohol. The prosecutors allege, however, that on 12 occasions, beginning in June 2017 and continuing through 2018, he for personal consumption 2-methyl-2-butanol (2M-2B), a chemical substance that enables a person to achieve a state of intoxication but is not detectable by routine drug and alcohol testing.
The indictment charges that Levy devised a scheme to defraud the VA and to obtain money and property from the VA in the form of salary, benefits, and performance awards he would not have received had his employer known he was intentionally concealing his non-compliance with the drug and alcohol testing program. The document also alleges that Levy twice made false statements to a special agent of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What is most disturbing, however, is what the indictment says about Levy’s role in the death of VA patients. Levy is accused of making false statements in healthcare matters by entering information in a patient’s medical records that he knew to be false and by making a false statement during a grievance hearing related to his employment.
The three counts of involuntary manslaughter for causing the death of three patients are related to his entering incorrect and misleading diagnoses and, on two occasions, by falsifying entries in the patients’ medical records to state that a second pathologist concurred with the diagnosis , according to the indictment. Law enforcement officials maintain that those incorrect and misleading diagnoses resulted in the deaths of three veterans.
Duane (DAK) Kees, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas stated, “This indictment should remind us all that this country has a responsibility to care for those who have served us honorably,” said U.S. Attorney Duane Kees. “When that trust is violated through criminal conduct, those responsible must be held accountable. Our veterans deserve nothing less.”
Members of Congress from Arkansas, including Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both Republications, and U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman released a statement about the misconduct, stating, “This alleged gross negligence by a physician charged with caring for our veterans is a disturbing revelation and a clear failure to uphold the Department of Veterans Affairs mission to the men and women who served our nation in uniform. The errors and reckless actions of this former VA pathologist put the health of our veterans at risk and will not be tolerated.”
The legislators added, “Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t know the extent of this doctor’s misconduct. We call on the VA to notify patients whose cases were evaluated by this pathologist to thoroughly and expeditiously review their results so veterans can get the appropriate care they earned. Those impacted deserve nothing less.”
Their statement was highly critical of the agency, noting that Congress has provided the VA “with the tools to remove bad actors. Failing to dismiss physicians and any other employees whose work is unsatisfactory does a disservice to our veterans. We are committed to rigorous oversight to protect the men and women who sacrificed and served our country and will hold those who break the law and undermine the mission of the VA accountable.”