Senior Staff Writer
The management at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center is “totally dysfunctional,” and whistle-blowers continue to face retaliation there despite years of complaints, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio said Thursday.
DeFazio, D-Springfield, gave a fiery speech on the floor of the U.S. House Thursday in favor of the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. Shortly afterward, the House voted unanimously in favor of the act.
The whistle-blower act has already been passed by the Senate and goes next to the president for approval. It applies to all federal employees, but it’s the VA that has become the poster child for whistle-blower retaliation complaints. Nationwide, the VA has the largest percentage — 35 percent — of such complaints of any federal agency.
The whistle-blower act outlines mandatory punishments for supervisors who retaliate against whistle-blowers. On the first offense, they are to be suspended for at least three days. On the second, they’re fired.
“I’m at the end of my rope with dealing with the Roseburg VA,” DeFazio said in an interview Thursday. He said the problems have been ongoing for years, and “it’s just got to stop.”
He said the VA is losing good doctors because of poor management.
“The culture of the VA has got to change at the management level,” he said.
Roseburg VA spokesman Shanon Goodwin said Thursday that the VA’s leadership team is “fully supportive of whistle-blower protection rights as stated in the act.”
DeFazio made reference in his floor speech to a doctor who had 29 years of military medical experience, was a former trauma medical director at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, Springfield, and who was dismissed from the Roseburg VA’s Eugene clinic this year just 30 days after he started working there full time.
In the interview, DeFazio identified the doctor as surgeon Scott Russi. DeFazio said Russi had a great career until he landed at the VA, and it didn’t make sense to believe he’d suddenly begun performing substandard work at the VA.
Instead, DeFazio said it seemed Russi had run afoul of the chief of surgery.
DeFazio had no kind words for the chief of surgery. He recalled the results of an inspector general’s report he had called for, which found the chief of surgery was using outdated colonoscopy methods. He also recalled the case of surgeon Philo Calhoun, who was demoted by the Roseburg VA after reporting on those substandard colonoscopies in 2014. Calhoun was vindicated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in 2015 in testimony before Congress. He was subsequently restored to surgical duties and reassigned to the Portland VA.
“It seems that we are having issues here when the quality is substandard that this one person is able to basically just get rid of the folks who are raising concerns about the care our veterans are getting. This shouldn’t happen,” DeFazio said during his floor speech.
Goodwin said the Roseburg VA can’t comment on Russi’s case due to privacy regulations on personnel issues. However, he said the VA takes retaliation allegations very seriously.
“Any allegations are immediately investigated and treated with the utmost seriousness. Additionally, all employees, at every level within the VA, are required to take annual training regarding whistle-blower protection rights, which includes prohibited behavior and employee rights,” he said.
The whistle-blower act is named for Chris Kirkpatrick, a psychologist who committed suicide after he was fired from the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wisconsin. Kirkpatrick had complained his patients were being given too many drugs to participate effectively in counseling. He was reprimanded, and later fired, after bringing up his concerns. A subsequent investigation found Tomah veterans were receiving much higher than average, and unsafe, drug dosages.
One of the provisions in the act ensures that cases will be investigated in which an employee had committed suicide, had been a whistle-blower and had any personnel action taken against them.
DeFazio said it’s unusual for the House to vote unanimously on any bill of substance, as it did today on the whistle-blower act.
“That’s got to send a pretty strong message,” he said.