The Hospital on the Hill

A mean-spirited VA medical center director has patient care playing distant second to the bottom line

Seiler received a fat Bronx cheer from the Blinded American Veterans Association (BAVA) in October 2000 for cronyism in hiring -- all the more remarkable because Seiler is also blind. The association took Seiler to task on its website for playing the "pre-selection game" in hiring a nonveteran to direct the hospital's new blind-rehabilitation program.

"Blinded veterans who applied were not given an opportunity to compete for the position," according to a column written by BAVA President John Fales under his pen name of Sgt. Shaft, a crusty alter ego who operates as a consumer advocate for blinded vets. "Their paperwork was conveniently lost, and the most qualified blinded veteran was not even on the list to be interviewed. And guess who got the chief's position: Seiler's nonveteran friend."

In 2001, the IG's Office probe also found that Seiler and his top managers knowingly stiffed eight rehab specialists out of relocation reimbursements for moving to West Palm Beach from VA positions around the country. Under federal law and VA policy, Seiler was required to fully reimburse those expenses. Seiler told investigators that he withheld reimbursements because it was a "prudent budgetary decision."

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

Once again, Roswell was advised to take administrative action against Seiler. Roswell's hard-hitting response was to employ the entire affair as a "lesson learned" for other hospital directors.

Seiler isn't beneath a bit of nepotism either, critics say -- even if it means making rank-and-file veterans wait a bit longer in line. Just ask Veronica Pledger, a 44-year-old single mother who has processed veterans claims at the hospital for the past 15 months. Pledger resides in a modest apartment in west ern Palm Beach County, which is liberally decorated with knickknacks and family photos, a youngish woman whose sad eyes mist up easily when she speaks about her job.

She works on the medical center's first floor, behind a windowless security door, where she and a handful of others process veterans' claims each day. Technically, they're employees of the Veteran's Benefits Administration, and its headquarters is in St. Petersburg, but they work closely with hospital personnel. Veterans wishing to receive medical or disability benefits file paperwork with this VBA minicenter, created to speed processing by keeping it local.

Pledger moved here last year from Cleveland, where she worked with a special unit that expedited VA claims for aging -- and quickly passing away -- World War II veterans. It was a vibrant team, empowered, she says, by management that always encouraged creative thinking if it would help veterans. The atmosphere in Florida, however, was a world away from that in Ohio. "They shuffle things," she says of the Florida hospital's current administration. "We have this report to do, so let's quick-shuffle this over to here so this report looks good. And when we need this report to look good, we'll shuffle over there. It's all about numbers."

In December 2003, Pledger returned from a break and saw her boss, Mike Richland, in his office talking to another man. "We're behind locked doors," Pledger explains, sounding as if she's gritting her teeth at times. "Nobody's supposed to be in our office, according to my supervisor, unless they're employees."

Richland then brought the man over to one of Pledger's co-workers and rearranged her desk to make room for paperwork. He then told her to fill out an application and process this veteran's claim as he stood there. Everyone in the office soon realized why this veteran was getting special treatment: He was Bruce Seiler, the director's brother.

"My boss, because it furthers his career," Pledger sputters, "broke the rules and allowed this vet to come in, made her stop the work she was doing on the files of four other veterans, fill out this guy's paperwork, and then, she was told to expedite the claim. I'm a vet, and at the time that happened, my claim was pending in Atlanta. And it was not getting any expedited treatment." In fact, Pledger says no veteran had ever been in the office before; Bruce Seiler's appearance was unique.

"The only time we're supposed to expedite is if the vet is homeless, has financial hardship, or is terminally ill. That's the only time we're supposed to put them to the top of the list." Bruce Seiler was none of the above, she says, but Richland continued to hover over the file like a hen over eggs.

Some employees are guardedly optimistic that a recent debacle at regional headquarters could lead to sweeping changes in management throughout the Sunshine State. In April, Roswell resigned as VA undersecretary because of his role in the disastrous implementation of a computer system at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg. The half-billion-dollar project, of which $249 million had already been paid to BearingPoint, was supposed to track and control finances. Instead, the outsourcing scheme brought operations to a halt at times, leading to canceled surgeries and backlogs of patients. Two other top administrators in Florida also fell on their swords, including Seiler's direct boss, Elwood Headley. Sen. Bill Nelson has prompted the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether there was criminal wrongdoing by VA officials.

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Seiler did the same thing at the Huntington VA. Total disregard of staff, veterans except those on his close pal list.