Dr. John “Mel” Bennett at the health department. (State photo)
Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration hired a physician to lead the state infectious-disease office soon after he had been dismissed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for “egregious” medical misconduct, Mary Meehan reports for Ohio Valley Resource, a consortium of public radio stations.
State officials were not aware of Dr. John “Mel” Bennett’s misconduct at the time he was hired, the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services said in response to the story.
The state hired Bennett in the same month that the VA’s inspector general published a report that said Bennett, from October 2015 to December 2017, entered the same blood pressure reading for hundreds of high-risk patients in order to avoid causing an alert that would require more work, Meehan reports.
An alert requires the provider to document additional follow-up care, such as additional blood tests or making changes to their medications. The inaccurate blood pressure data, according to the IG’s report, were “most likely an effort to reduce workload.”
Several patients had adverse health outcomes because of the inaccurate information, and one suffered a “cardiac event,” according to VA consultant Thomas Wong, in a podcast produced by the IG’s office, Meehan reports.
The “IG found that Bennett falsified blood pressure readings in 99.5 percent of 1,370 cases involving patients at highest risk for developing health problems due to hypertension,” the clinical name for high blood pressure, and “Documents show he recorded inaccurate information into patient charts 50 times in 10 days between Dec. 11 and Dec. 21, 2017,” Meehan reports.
When confronted at the time, Bennett acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, according to records Meehan got with a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure later issued an agreed order outlining Bennett’s conduct and sanctions against him. In it, Lexington VA Medical Center Director Emma Metcalf called Bennett’s offenses “egregious,” Meehan reports.
“You have lost the confidence of your colleagues regarding your reliability, accuracy, and integrity,” Metcalf wrote. “You have violated your patients’ and colleagues’ trust as well as failed to meet the standards entrusted to us as physicians.Your actions have placed veterans in harm’s way and violate the established principles governing the practice of medicine.”
The VA barred Bennett from treating patients at the facility on Dec. 26, 2017, when the investigation began; fired him on July 6, 2018; and sent a letter to the state licensure board two weeks later explaining its decision, Meehan reports.
The state health cabinet hired Bennett in September 2018 to lead the state’s infectious disease branch at a salary of $127,000, Meehan reports. The department works to combat and prevent contagious diseases like HIV and hepatitis A. Meehan notes that Bennett was hired during a hepatitis A outbreak that has killed 16 and sickened 4,900 Kentuckians.
Cabinet spokesperson Christina Dettman told Meehan in an email that the VA published its report after Bennett was hired and that “the findings did not identify Dr. Bennett as the physician under investigation.”
Bennett’s hiring was approved by Dr. Jeffrey Howard, the health commissioner at the time. He was on the licensure board, which received the VA’s letter in July. However, Meehan reports that “board rules require such information to remain confidential for some time until an investigation is complete,” so Howard would not have been notified of the VA letter at the time Bennett was hired. Howard declined to comment.
“The Cabinet for Health and Family Services had no way of knowing Dr. Bennett’s conduct was in question when he was hired by the cabinet, nor at any point during his tenure with the cabinet through the time he was terminated,” Dettman wrote in a separate e-mail after the article was first published.
Bennett remained in charge of the infectious disease office for six months until his removal in April. He said at the time that the state gave him no reason for his firing. That is the usual procedure for dismissing employees who are not part of the Merit System, the state’s version of civil service.
Bennett’s resume at the time he applied for the job said he was still employed by the VA, though he had been fired in July.
Bennett told Meehan that he was unaware of entering the same blood pressure over and over but also that it was a treatment strategy. “I thought I had an ability to, to sub-categorize my patients into a group that I can work with at a later date,” he said. “It was wrong.”
“Bennett gave a similar explanation to both the VA and the licensure board,” Meehan reports. “Both rejected his arguments.” In June, the board put Bennett’s license on probation for five years, ordered him to complete training and pay a $5,000 fine.
The state has had trouble keeping a manager of the infectious-disease branch. Bennett replaced Dr. Robert Brawley, who was allowed to resign in lieu of being fired on June 4, 2018. Brawley had wanted the state to respond more aggressively to the Hepatitis A outbreak, the nation’s worst.