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Ask a Vet
Author: TriSec    Date: 10/31/2017 09:48:07

Good Morning.

Have you ever had to report someone for a transgression? It's not an easy thing, and in most cases, it does not come without risk to you. But nevertheless, sometimes it's the only way to correct a wrong, end corruption, or sometimes even save a life or end a dangerous situation.

America has had a love/hate relationship with the whistleblower, but it's become such a part of our being that Congress eventually protected those that would sound the alarm under public law 101-12, passed in 1989.



The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Pub.L. 101-12 as amended, is a United States federal law that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct. A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee or applicant because of disclosure of information by that employee or applicant. Whistleblowers may file complaints that they believe reasonably evidences a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.


Raising the alarm may be the American thing to do, but it certainly isn't the Trumpian thing to do. The Veteran's Administration is varied and vast, and it's easy for some parts of the system to be overlooked, or ignored, and for issues to arise. A Whistleblower may be the only thing preventing complete disaster in certain situations. But it doesn't matter anymore in this administration.


When President Trump talked about the importance of protecting “our great, great people, our veterans,” during a White House meeting in March, he said, “No more games going to be played at the VA.”

At a White House briefing on Trump’s executive order to improve whistleblower protection in April, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said, “The message is clear that we will not tolerate whistleblower retaliation in the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Well, nine months into the Trump administration, that message is not clear, and games continue to be played. Not only does the cancer of VA whistleblower retaliation remain active, but it’s also growing, according to employees who have suffered its sting.

Hear Katherine Mitchell, a VA physician in Phoenix:

“Although I do have a good relationship with my current immediate supervisor, the overall … retaliation in my current job worsened in January 2017 and continues unabated. The overt retaliation from VA Central Office (VACO) also worsened under the Trump administration.

“In my opinion, based on my experiences and conversations with other VA whistleblowers, since President Trump was elected, it appears to be open season across the nation on VA whistleblowers despite the passage of the [VA] Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017,” she added, writing in an email. “VACO is dragging its feet on resolving whistleblower retaliation claims.”

Mitchell and Christian Head, a doctor in Los Angeles, two prominent VA whistleblowers, say the retaliation they suffered under the Obama administration still infects their lives and stymies their careers. The two physicians were among those who exposed major problems in VA hospitals to Congress. A department secretary lost his job because of the scandal, which broke in 2014, over the coverup of long patient wait times. It disgraced the department — despite its many good works — and imposed a shame it still can’t shake off.

In response to Mitchell and Head, department press secretary Curt Cashour said, “VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employees who feel they are experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.” He would not discuss individual cases without the written permission of Mitchell and Head.

In April 2015, Head said at a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing that he saw patients’ requests for medical care, known as consults, being removed to reduce the number of patients on the wait list. “I witnessed the direct batch deletion, the order given by my immediate supervisor,” he said then, “of 40,000 consults.”

In December that year, Mitchell told a Senate Veterans’ Affairs field hearing outside Phoenix about “dangerous ED (Emergency Department) patient safety defects,” including “a significant lack of nurse triage training, and inadequate nursing triage protocols” and the Phoenix VA hospital’s “dysfunctional institutional culture.” The hospital was at the scandal’s epicenter.

Head is a head and neck surgeon at the West Los Angeles Medical Center, the largest in the VA’s system. In addition to his doctor’s duties, Head is the associate director-chief of staff for quality assurance, but it doesn’t mean much. Head said the continuing retaliation against him includes “isolation, so I’m not really doing leadership duties at the hospital,” in addition to actions affecting patient safety.

“The retaliation against me has been consistent and unrelenting,” he said in a letter sent to Shulkin last month. “I have been isolated, my medical expertise marginalized and my medical career damaged. I also suffered a heart attack while at work during several retaliatory events.”


Of course there is probably something to hide here...and unlike other situations where the root cause may be ignorance instead of malice, I have no such illusions here. Another example of the backsliding going on throughout the V.A. comes out of Nebraska. Almost 100 veterans waiting for behavioural health have had their care delayed while they languished on a secret "waiting list". It's not known if those veterans have gone on to become part of the suicide crisis.


U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials say an unauthorized, secret waiting list for psychotherapy appointments at Omaha's VA hospital delayed care for 87 veterans this year.

Letters addressed to Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse — all Republicans — blamed the unauthorized list on "training deficiencies" involving the hospital's medical support assistants, the Omaha World-Herald reported Saturday.

The VA's response to Sasse said no employees were fired, but one employee who was involved retired and another resigned. It also said no bonuses were paid based on performance data implicated in the investigation of the secret lists.

Officials said the investigation is continuing into whether more lower-ranking employees in the VA's Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System were responsible. That should be completed by the end of the month.

"Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken if warranted," VA Secretary David Shulkin said in his letters to the senators.

Shulkin said the affected veterans did receive other types of treatment while their names were on the list, including substance-abuse treatment, inpatient treatment and counseling through primary care or Veteran's Center clinics.

Shulkin's response did not say whether any of the veterans were told about the delays.

The list, first reported by the Omaha World-Herald, dodged strict VA requirements for establishing and maintaining waiting lists, according to a compliance officer's memo to the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System. The compliance officer's audit included whistleblower complaints made about unauthorized lists for appointments at the VA's mental health psychotherapy clinic in Omaha.


There is also a practical part to whistleblowing...if problems are identified and corrected, and there are less injuries or mismanagement, it even saves money in the long run. Something like $2.3m is a drop in the bucket for the multi-billion dollar Pentagon, but this is money that didn't have to be paid out, if everything had been done correctly in the first place.


The government has reached a $2.3 million settlement with survivors of a Marine Corps veteran who died of a drug overdose at the troubled VA medical center in Tomah, Wis.

Court papers filed Friday say about $1.65 million would go up-front to the widow and daughter of Jason Simcakoski, of Stevens Point, Wis., who was 35 when he died in 2014 at the Tomah VA facility.

Another $659,000 would go into annuities for Simcakoski's widow, Heather, and their daughter, Anaya. The rest would go to attorney fees and expenses.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported Saturday that a federal judge will hold a hearing Wednesday on whether to approve the settlement.

Simcakoski's death led to the firing of the Tomah VA's chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan, who agreed this past January to surrender his medical license permanently. The former head of the center, Mario DeSanctis, was fired in 2015 but fought his dismissal and eventually was allowed to resign, USA Today reported earlier this month. He and his lawyer were paid $163,000, it said.

An inspector general's report in 2015 found that Tomah VA doctors commonly over-prescribed opioid painkillers, earning the facility the nickname "Candy Land."

Simcakoski, honorably discharged from the Marines in 2002, had been treated from 2006 to 2014 for a variety of conditions. He was admitted to the Tomah VA's acute psychiatric unit on Aug. 10, 2014, then transferred to a short stay unit.

On the morning of Aug. 30, 2014, he was so sedated he could barely speak, his family alleged in the lawsuit. He was found unresponsive that afternoon. He died after life-saving attempts were made, although they weren't started for about 10 minutes after he was found.

An autopsy determined that Simcakoski died from mixed-drug toxicity. The inspector general found that doctors who prescribed his medications failed to talk with him about the risks, and noted delays in the start of CPR and the lack of medication at the Tomah VA to reverse drug overdoses.


Of course, these problems are long-term and they didn't all happen on Trump's watch. But his ongoing actions aren't helping, and in many cases are actually making things worse. The columns on the negative side of the ledger just keep getting longer.







 

24 comments (Latest Comment: 10/31/2017 20:51:58 by Raine)
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