Worker law­suits flood VA de­spite terse apol­ogy

Whistle­blow­ers de­mand ac­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JIM MCEL­HAT­TON

Say­ing sorry isn’t prov­ing enough for the trou­bled De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

An apol­ogy from a se­nior VA of­fi­cial ear­lier this month failed to pre­vent a spate of em­ploy­ment-re­lated fed­eral law­suits from for­mer em­ploy­ees who claim they faced re­tal­i­a­tion af­ter lodg­ing work­place com­plaints, a re­view of court records shows.

The com­plaints in­clude the case of a for­mer staff psy­chol­o­gist in South Dakota who says she was pun­ished for calling at­ten­tion to build­ing prob­lems that were mak­ing peo­ple phys­i­cally ill.

In another case, a pa­tient safety man­ager in Texas says he was sus­pended af­ter rais­ing con­cerns about a staffing short­age in his de­part­ment, all while be­ing the tar­get of racial slurs.

It’s un­clear whether the un­fold­ing VA scandal will re­sult in an uptick in law­suits and the prospect of ex­pen­sive le­gal judg­ments or set­tle­ments. But the half-dozen re­cent cases re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times al­most cer­tainly rep­re­sent a tiny frac­tion of over­all work­place com­plaints the agency is fac­ing.

“Un­less you do some­thing real, it’s just win­dow dress­ing,” said Stephen Kohn, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­tional Whistle­blow­ers Cen­ter, when asked about the VA apol­ogy. “I haven’t seen any change in the cul­ture at VA. It re­ally has a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the worst fed­eral agen­cies for whistle­blow­ers.”

Mr. Kohn is rep­re­sent­ing Dr. Ram Chaturvedi in a case be­fore the Merit Sys­tems Pro­tec­tion Board. The doc­tor, who worked at the VA med­i­cal cen­ter in Dal­las, says he was fired af­ter rais­ing con­cerns about pa­tient safety vi­o­la­tions of hos­pi­tal ac­cred­i­ta­tion rules.

“It’s an in­grained cul­ture,” Mr. Kohn said. “What they need to do if they were se­ri­ous is to ap­point a truly in­de­pen­dent and re­spon­si­ble neu­tral me­di­a­tor, some­one who can come in and ac­tu­ally look these cases over and re­solve them if they need to re­solved. But they con­tinue to fight them in court.”

Among other re­cent fed­eral cases re­viewed by The Times, Re­becca Wat­sonMiller, a for­mer psy­chol­o­gist as­signed to VA fa­cil­i­ties in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, filed a fed­eral law­suit Tues­day say­ing she was tar­geted af­ter com­plain­ing that the build­ing where she worked was mak­ing peo­ple sick.

The law­suit said she and oth­ers in the build­ing feared the struc­ture was caus­ing res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions and other health prob­lems. Ms. Watson-Miller said the VA’s sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tion was in­ad­e­quate, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

An at­tor­ney de­clined to com­ment, and the VA did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment Wed­nes­day.

In another case, John Bender, a pa­tient safety man­ager for VA’s North Texas Health­care Sys­tem, said he was sub­jected to of­fen­sive racial slurs at work and that he was placed on leave af­ter com­plain­ing that a staffing short­age could “im­pact pa­tient safety,” ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, which was filed last week.

Both cases were filed weeks af­ter a top VA of­fi­cial is­sued a blunt pub­lic apol­ogy to em­ploy­ees who en­dured re­tal­i­a­tion over the years. James Tuch­schmidt, act­ing prin­ci­pal deputy un­der­sec­re­tary, made the re­marks dur­ing a con­gres­sional hear­ing in which sev­eral whistle­blow­ers re­counted their sto­ries of reprisal.

“I apol­o­gize to every­one whose voice has been sti­fled,” Mr. Tuch­schmidt said.

Ap­pear­ing be­fore the House Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs, Mr. Tuch­schmidt told law­mak­ers that the VA wouldn’t tol­er­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where “in­tim­i­da­tion or sup­pres­sion” of re­ports oc­curs.

“Clearly, we are deeply con­cerned and dis­tressed about the al­le­ga­tions that em­ploy­ees who sought to re­port de­fi­cien­cies were ei­ther ig­nored, or worse, in­tim­i­dated into si­lence,” he said.

Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller, Florida Repub­li­can, ex­pressed lit­tle doubt that more whistle­blower com­plaints would emerge as the VA con­tin­ues to deal with a scandal in­volv­ing ma­nip­u­lated pa­tient wait times at mul­ti­ple fa­cil­i­ties across the U.S.

“VA has failed to en­gage their clin­i­cian work­force as part­ners, as ev­i­denced by the nu­mer­ous whistle­blow­ers who have come for­ward to share their sto­ries of ret­ri­bu­tion and reprisal and the many more who con­tinue to call our of­fices yet, un­der­stand­ably, are re­luc­tant to come for­ward pub­licly,” Mr. Miller said.

Eric K. Shin­seki re­signed as VA sec­re­tary May 30, a month af­ter he be­came em­broiled in the scandal over un­ac­cept­ably long wait times for some vet­er­ans.

The fall­out con­tin­ues. Ly­dia Den­nett, a spokes­woman for the Project On Govern­ment Over­sight, said the watch­dog group still re­ceives con­fi­den­tial re­ports from VA em­ploy­ees about re­tal­i­a­tion. She said some em­ploy­ees in­formed the agency’s in­spec­tor gen­eral but didn’t re­ceive any feed­back on their com­plaints.

She said she was un­sure whether another level of fed­eral re­view of whistle­blower com­plaints was nec­es­sary but added that the VA needed re­store the trust of its em­ploy­ees.

This week, the watch­dog re­leased a re­port say­ing it had re­ceived nearly 800 com­plaints from cur­rent or for­mer VA em­ploy­ees and vet­er­ans, the most in its his­tory on any topic.

A doc­tor in Penn­syl­va­nia told the group he was re­moved from his job and told to sit in an of­fice with noth­ing to do af­ter he com­plained about col­leagues who weren’t show­ing up to work.

Act­ing Sec­re­tary Sloan Gib­son said in a speech this week that the VA would do a bet­ter job of lis­ten­ing to work­ers who file com­plaints about work­place and pa­tient safety is­sues.


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