Health Care

Veterans group leader: Is KC VA’s yearlong silence on Missouri vet’s death a coverup?

Dale Farhner of Kingston, Missouri, died in May 2018 after a confrontation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police. The VA has declined to provide any information about what happened in the year since.
Dale Farhner of Kingston, Missouri, died in May 2018 after a confrontation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police. The VA has declined to provide any information about what happened in the year since.

Dale Farhner, a 66-year-old military veteran, was injured during an altercation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police on his way in for medical care May 10, 2018.

He was hospitalized and, two days later, he died of a brain hemorrhage.

One year later, the VA is still declining to release information about that incident in the parking lot — to The Star, to Congress and even to Farhner’s family.

Three of Farhner’s children filed a wrongful death lawsuit May 2 that may, eventually, force the VA to provide the information.

But Randall Barnett, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Kansas City branch, said the public deserves answers now. Barnett said it seems like the VA is trying to stall until “it all blows over.”

“If they weren’t at fault or didn’t feel through their investigation they were somewhat at fault, why would they cover everything up?” Barnett asked. “Or try to cover everything up?”

VA spokesman Vernon Stewart said Farhner’s death is still under investigation by the Jackson County Medical Examiner and referred questions to that office.

A spokeswoman for Jackson County said the medical examiner’s office is waiting for a report from an independent neuropathologist.

Meanwhile, the VA is holding investigative documents and video that could shed light on what happened in the parking lot.

The VA’s commitment to public transparency and accountability has been questioned before.

NPR reported last year that the VA tops all federal agencies in whistleblowers who say they’ve been retaliated against and that new initiatives to protect whistleblowers have been insufficient.

A California newspaper chain reported last week that an internal VA document leaked to the press substantiated a whistleblower claim filed by a group of doctors and nurses that said administrators at the Loma Linda VA hospital tried to cover up the presence of Legionella bacteria in the water supply, putting patients and staff at risk

In 2017, a Massachusetts newspaper reported that employees at a VA hospital there believed the agency was trying to cover up a botched surveillance operation by VA police that aimed to catch someone stealing hospital property. Two officers who were almost run over by the alleged thief said they were told by a superior not to write up reports on it. The suspect was not criminally charged until five months later, when local police wrote up a warrant for his arrest.

“VA employees interviewed for this article said the 2015 incident is emblematic of a hospital, and federal agency, where mistakes are swept under the rug and wrongdoers are shuffled off to another department,” the Lowell Sun reported.

Farhner was from Kingston, Mo. According to the lawsuit, he drove himself to the hospital because he had gotten an infection after having hernia surgery there eight days earlier. He drove the wrong way up a one-way street in the parking lot on his way to the emergency room and parked.

The suit says he was then approached by one or two police officers, who ordered him to get out of the car. One or both of them “engaged in a physical altercation” with Farhner that, according to the suit, “directly resulted in physical injuries to Dale, including, but not limited to, cuts, scrapes, bruises and traumatic brain injury.”

An internal VA report leaked to USA Today in December said Farhner was nearly unconscious when brought to the emergency room after the altercation and a CT scan showed multiple brain bleeds. Later scans also showed he potentially had a stroke and the report made no determination about whether he died because of injuries caused by police.

The Star filed a formal open records request with the VA almost a year ago for information about the altercation, after receiving an anonymous tip about it.

VA records manager Laura Hughes responded in July that the agency had 18 pages of written records, plus audio and video recordings. But she said she wasn’t going to release any of them because the VA was still investigating the matter and “release of the pre-decisional document to the public would likely negatively impact a frank discussion on matters of policy between subordinates and supervisors.”

The Star appealed that decision, but has yet to get a response.

In the months since, the VA has continued to rebuff requests for information from The Star, from former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and from current U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

“We’ve had a hard time getting those records ourselves,” Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said during an April 22 visit to Kansas City. “I’ve been very critical of the VA and I guess I’m going to have to continue being critical of the VA on this topic. I did have them in our office about two months ago and once again said, ‘Why can’t we get those records and get everything we could possibly see now?’ I’m frustrated.”

The lawsuit says Farhner’s children filed an administrative complaint about their father’s death with the VA in July, but the agency did not respond to it within the six-month time limit. They agreed to give the VA an extra month, but “the VA allowed that period to expire” without contacting them.

Stewart, the VA spokesman, said the agency acknowledged receiving the complaint, but declined to answer questions about why there was no further response. He referred those questions to Department of Justice spokesman Don Ledford, who said the department’s policy is to not comment now that a lawsuit is pending.

James LaSalle, the attorney representing Farhner’s children, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General published an audit in December that found that the 4,000 police officers who work at its 139 hospitals were operating without much oversight or accountability.

Barnett said he’s planning to ask the national leadership of Vietnam Veterans of America to get involved in trying to pry information about Farhner’s death out of the VA.

“See if we can get them to put some pressure on,” Barnett said. “But I don’t know if it would do any good. You would think the VFW, the American Legion, everybody would be up in arms about it. But if they’re thumbing their nose at Roy Blunt, somebody in Congress, they could probably care less what the VFW or the American Legion think — or us, for sure.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.