Retaliation at VA bared

Whistle-blowing medical professionals suffered, watchdog says

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

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


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here