We’ve known for a while that the VA is an absolute mess.
Those who have served our country deserve their chance at quality healthcare. Instead, we’ve seen 500,000 applications for care get thrown out because of error, have learned of secret rankings for VA facilities, and hear of patients dying while waiting to be seen. And that is just some of the ongoing ineptitude.
Doctors and other staff who blow the whistle on this kind of egregious behavior aren’t met with a listening ear and commitment to improvement. Instead, they are being silenced and/or punished for daring to speak up.
One doctor at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Missouri is experiencing just that.
FOX News reports, emphasis mine:
A double board certified physician and Yale University fellow, Klein said the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) took away his patients and privileges almost a year ago after, he alleges, he blew the whistle on secret wait-lists and wait-time manipulation at the V.A. in Poplar Bluff, Mo., as well as his suspicion that some veterans were reselling their prescriptions on the black market.
When his superiors did nothing, Klein went to the inspector general.
“Immediately after the V.A. found out I made these disclosures, I started to get retaliated against,” Klein said.
Klein was initially placed on administrative leave. The Missouri-V.A. closed his pain management clinic and tried to terminate him. According to court documents, the V.A. tried to fire Klein “not based on substandard care or lack of clinical competence” but instead for “consistent acceleration of trivial matters through his chain of command.”
“I do not consider secret wait-lists and manipulations of wait times to be trivial matters,” Klein said.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency in Washington, D.C., made it clear that since the doctor was a whistleblower, he could not be fired. But Klein said the retaliation continued and believes his superiors stripped him of his duties to silence him.
Instead of allowing Dr. Klein – who specializes in pain management – to help veterans desperately needing care, the VA stripped him of duties and sent him to “punishment”, since they couldn’t fire him.
A highly rated pain management specialist at the Southeast Missouri John J. Pershing V.A., Klein is paid $250,000 a year to work with veterans, but instead of helping those who served their country, he sits in a small office and does nothing. All day. Every day.
“I sit in a chair and I look at the walls,” the doctor said of his typical workday. “It feels like solitary confinement.”
Brian Smothers, formerly with the Denver VA, experienced similar “punishment” before finally quitting in the fall of 2016.
Smothers was working as a peer support specialist when he alleges he found more than 3,500 veterans on what he believes were “secret” wait-lists at V.A. facilities in Denver, Golden and Colorado Springs.
“It became clear to me very quickly that many of the veterans that were on the PTSD clinical team’s wait-list had been waiting for care for three, four, five, six months,” Smothers said.
The reason, Smothers alleges, is profit: “People who run the V.A. and the mental health division hid these wait-lists so they could meet performance goals, and as a consequence of meeting these goals, got bonuses. They defrauded the federal government because it benefited them.”
Smothers is haunted by one veteran’s death in particular, an Army Ranger in Colorado Springs who told the V.A. that he had been waiting for care and was suicidal. Instead of helping him, the V.A. allegedly placed him on a wait-list and he committed suicide a short time later, Smothers said.
After Smothers reported the allegations to the inspector general, he said his superiors retaliated by forcing him to sit in his office, without any work assignments or authority to see patients. Human Resources also tried to get him to destroy the wait-lists, he alleges, and sign a piece of paper saying he had “compromised the integrity of the healthcare system,” Smothers said.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, has written letters to the VA on behalf of both Dr. Klein and Brian Smothers. As FOX News reports, Senator Johnson is currently “trying to pass a whistleblower protection bill to help V.A. employees like Smothers and Klein.”
The mess at the VA should be a priority for members of Congress as well as the new administration. If Republicans and the new president are eager to “drain the swamp”, they can focus on investigating wrongdoing in VA hospitals, protecting whistleblowers, and eliminating and prosecuting problem employees who manipulate others, including patients, for their own gain.
Veterans deserve much better than they’re getting in health care facilities. What continues to happen to them is a direct reflection upon the nation they chose to protect.