VA supervisors: Wear blinders and talk about sunshine and kittens

A watchdog group has learned that health care professionals were punished by supervisors if they spoke out against poor treatment within the VA system.
AP Wire
Jul 22, 2014

A pharmacy supervisor at the VA was placed on leave after complaining about errors and delays in delivering medications to patients at a hospital in Palo Alto, California. 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 whistleblowers, 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, 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 supervisors at the VA against employees who filed whistleblower 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 that it was "in a perpetual state of failure, failing to provide timely, quality care to veterans," 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 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. 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, Freeman placed Kallio on paid leave pending an investigation. Another VA official ordered Kallio not to discuss the case outside the VA, the report said.

This month, 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 Brian said an order attempting to gag Kallio, coupled with expansion of Freeman's responsibilities, "seem directly at odds" with a message Acting VA Secretary Gibson has repeated in recent weeks emphasizing the importance of whistleblower protection.

A spokesman for Gibson 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 whistleblowers 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 whistleblowers.

Griffin's office said last week 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 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 telephone consultations, which Tomasco said delayed care to patients requiring immediate assistance.

After filing the complaint in 2012, 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."

Gibson is to address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday in St. Louis. Vice President Joe Biden told the convention on Monday that the country has learned there are "many, many" things that must be done to fix the VA.

 

Comments

Boater

So much for transparency. I thought that whistle blowers were supposed to be cheered, not silenced.

Boater

So much for transparency. I thought that whistle blowers were supposed to be cheered, not silenced.

Grassyass

The Democratic Oath: Wear blinders and talk about sunshine and kittens.

Mystic Michael

Excuse me. Unless you're prepared to demonstrate, conclusively, that the VA problems existed from 1993 - 2001, miraculously disappeared entirely from 2001 - 2009, and then suddenly reappeared with a vengeance beginning in 2009, you need to STFU.

Lanivan

This is unacceptable. Every supervisor who played a part in the callous and self-serving VA corruption over the past 20 years should be fired immediately. Hire new employees who are dedicated to serving veterans and who care about their health for about half the positions, and hire more doctors and medical staff with the money available from the other vacancies.

Mystic Michael

Management 101: If you wish to understand the source(s) of function and dysfunction within an organization, pay attention to where the incentives and the disincentives are.

In my experience, corruption that is this thoroughly and deeply embedded within an organization's culture is never the result of just a few isolated incidents, or caused by only a few isolated people. It is impossible for it to even exist without senior managers/executives, people in a position to make changes, choose to deliberately look the other way.

From what I can see, the VA dysfunction goes all the way up to Congress - which is ultimately responsible for the mess. Since there is no clear path to fame, fortune or power for members of Congress to serve on the House or Senate veterans affairs committee(s), none of them want to do it. So they chronically under-fund the VA. They neglect to apply proper oversight. VA staff are given great responsibility - and little actual authority. Senior VA execs are politically savvy; they get the implicit message from Congress: 'Do what you have to do. Just keep a lid on it, and don't get us in trouble'. And it just trickles down from there.

That same Congress that is feigning such astonishment and outrage now is the same Congress that passively allowed this sore to fester in the first place.

Not condoning corruption here. Rather attempting to understand it. After all, how do you reform a problem that you do not understand? And how do you understand it, unless you're willing to look at it as it actually exists?

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