WASHINGTON -- 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."