Retaliation at VA bared

Whistle-blowing medical professionals suffered, watchdog says

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WASHINGTON — A Veter­ans Af­fairs hos­pi­tal phar­macy su­per­vi­sor was placed on leave af­ter com­plain­ing about er­rors and de­lays in de­liv­er­ing med­i­ca­tions to pa­tients at a hos­pi­tal in Palo Alto, Calif. In Penn­syl­va­nia, a doc­tor was re­moved from clin­i­cal work af­ter com­plain­ing that on-call doc­tors were re­fus­ing to go to a VA hos­pi­tal in Wilkes-Barre.

Med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als from coast to coast have pointed out prob­lems at the VA, only to suf­fer re­tal­i­a­tion from su­per­vi­sors and other high-rank­ing of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to a re­port Mon­day by a pri­vate gov­ern­ment watch­dog.

The re­port com­piled by the Proj­ect on Govern­ment Over­sight, a group that con­ducts its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions and works with whis­tle-­blow­ers, is based on com­ments and com­plaints filed by nearly 800 cur­rent and for­mer VA em­ploy­ees and vet­er­ans. Those com­ments in­di­cate that con­cerns about the VA go far be­yond the long wait­ing times or fal­si­fied ap­point­ment records that have re­ceived much re­cent at­ten­tion, ex­tend­ing to the qual­ity of health care ser­vices vet­er­ans re­ceive, the re­port said.

The group set up a web­site in mid-May for com­plaints and said it has re­ceived al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing from 35 states and the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia.

“A re­cur­ring and fun­da­men­tal theme has be­come clear: VA em­ploy­ees across the coun­try fear they will face re­per­cus­sions if they dare to raise a dis­sent­ing voice,” said Da­nielle Brian, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “Un­til we elim­i­nate the cul­ture of in­tim­i­da­tion and cli­mate of fear, no re­forms will be able to turn this bro­ken agency around.”

The re­port from the group, known as POGO, came a day be­fore the Senate Veter­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee was to hold a hear­ing on the nom­i­na­tion of Robert McDon­ald to be VA sec­re­tary. If con­firmed by the Senate, Mr. McDon­ald would re­place act­ing Sec­re­tary Sloan Gib­son, who took over May 30 af­ter Eric Shinseki re­signed amid a grow­ing up­roar over treat­ment de­lays and fal­si­fied records at VA hos­pi­tals and clin­ics na­tion­wide.

A fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tive agency says it is ex­am­in­ing 67 claims of re­tal­i­a­tion by VA su­per­vi­sors against em­ploy­ees who filed whis­tle-­blower com­plaints. The in­de­pen­dent Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel said 30 of the com­plaints about re­tal­i­a­tion have passed the ini­tial re­view stage and are be­ing fur­ther in­ves­ti­gated for cor­rec­tive ac­tion and pos­si­ble dis­ci­pline against VA su­per­vi­sors and other ex­ec­u­tives.

Mon­day’s pri­vate re­port de­tails the case of Stu­art Kal­lio, an in­pa­tient phar­macy tech­ni­cian su­per­vi­sor at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System, who com­plained to su­pe­ri­ors about what he de­scribed as in­com­pe­tent, un­car­ing man­age­ment and in­ef­fi­cien­cies in de­liv­er­ing med­i­cine to pa­tients.

The phar­macy ser­vice had stead­ily de­te­ri­o­rated to the point where it was “in a per­pet­ual state of fail­ure, fail­ing to pro­vide timely, qual­ity care to vet­er­ans,” Mr. Kal­lio said in a Feb. 26 email to su­per­vi­sors. He ad­dressed his crit­i­cisms up the chain of com­mand as far as Eliz­a­beth Joyce Free­man, di­rec­tor of the Palo Alto VA Health Care System.

On April 7, the chief of the phar­macy ser­vice sent Mr. Kal­lio a let­ter threat­en­ing to sus­pend him for send­ing emails “that con­tained dis­re­spect­ful and in­ap­pro­pri­ate state­ments about your ser­vice chief” and oth­ers at the hos­pi­tal, in­clud­ing lead­er­ship of the Palo Alto VA, the POGO re­port said. Mr. Kal­lio de­fended him­self in a let­ter to su­pe­ri­ors de­tail­ing hos­pi­tal records that showed pa­tients suf­fer­ing from “missed doses, late doses, wrong doses” of med­i­ca­tion. He was sus­pended for two weeks in June.

On June 20, the day be­fore his sus­pen­sion was to end, Ms. Free­man placed Mr. Kal­lio on paid leave pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Another VA of­fi­cial or­dered Mr. Kal­lio not to dis­cuss the case out­side the VA, the re­port said.

This month, Ms. Free­man be­came in­terim di­rec­tor of the VA’s trou­bled South­west Health Care Net­work, based in Ari­zona. The for­mer di­rec­tor there re­tired af­ter re­ports this spring that doz­ens of pa­tients have died while await­ing treat­ment at the Phoe­nix VA hos­pi­tal.

POGO’s Ms. Brian said an or­der at­tempt­ing to gag Mr. Kal­lio, cou­pled with ex­pan­sion of Ms. Free­man’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, “seem di­rectly at odds” with a mes­sage that Mr. Gib­son, the act­ing VA sec­re­tary, has re­peated in re­cent weeks em­pha­siz­ing the im­por­tance of whis­tle-­blower pro­tec­tion.

A Gib­son spokes­man said Mon­day that the VA thanks POGO “for bring­ing these im­por­tant claims to light.” The spokes­man, Drew Brookie, en­cour­aged the group to pro­vide rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion to the VA’s Of­fice of Inspec­tor Gen­eral and Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel, “so there can be ap­pro­pri­ate fol­low-up.”

The VA’s act­ing in­spec­tor gen­eral, Rich­ard Grif­fin, has is­sued a sub­poena de­mand­ing that POGO turn over a list of whis­tle-­blow­ers who filed com­plaints through its web­site, which is op­er­ated jointly with the Iraq and Af­ghan­istan Veter­ans of Amer­ica. The groups have re­fused, say­ing re­lease of the names would vi­o­late the prom­ise they made to whis­tle-­blow­ers.

Mr. Grif­fin’s of­fice last week said it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble wrong­do­ing at 87 VA med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide, up from 69 last month.

Tho­mas Tomasco, a doc­tor who worked at the Wilkes-Barre VA Med­i­cal Center in Penn­syl­va­nia, told POGO that he quit his job “un­der du­ress” af­ter he raised con­cerns about the hos­pi­tal’s on-call pol­icy. He com­plained that on-call phy­si­cians were re­fus­ing to come to the hos­pi­tal in emer­gencies; in­stead, they pro­vided phone con­sul­ta­tions, which Dr. Tomasco said de­layed care to pa­tients re­quir­ing im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance.

After fil­ing the com­plaint in 2012, Dr. Tomasco was sus­pended for a day with­out pay — an ac­tion that was over­turned — and later was re­moved from clin­i­cal ser­vice. He even­tu­ally quit, say­ing he was “treated like a pa­riah with no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.”?

United States - North America - Pennsylvania - California - Joe Biden - Eric Shinseki - Palo Alto


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