An online petition asking the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center to reinstate surgeon and retired Air Force Col. Scott Russi had garnered more than 2,500 signatures as of Monday. The petition, on the Change.org website, is accompanied by a 14-minute documentary that includes footage from his time as an Air Force colonel deployed to a military hospital in Afghanistan and interviews with patients and coworkers.
Russi was fired in 2017, shortly after he began working as a surgeon at the Roseburg VA’s Eugene clinic. He alleges he was retaliated against because he was a whistle-blower reporting the VA was providing substandard care. The VA asserted there were problems with four cases Russi handled. Russi’s case gained publicity after U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio testified about him during a push for whistle-blower protection legislation.
Documentary filmmaker Robert Ham told The News-Review on Monday he was shocked to find out what had happened to Russi. Ham was a combat videographer deployed with the Army’s 4th Brigade 25th Infantry Division out of Alaska when he first met Russi at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan. The year was 2009, and America was ramping up its military efforts in Afghanistan.
Ham sometimes went out on military expeditions, but when he was around the base, he often found good stories to video at the combat hospital there, where Russi was a surgeon. Some of the footage he took of Russi back then appears in the new documentary, which is called “Stop the Line” — an ironic reference to a VA program purporting to encourage whistle-blowers to report safety issues.
“War is complicated, and not all of us are heroes, but Scott is a hero,” Ham said. “I literally saw him do heroic stuff, bringing people back to life.”
Ham learned about Russi’s VA firing while working on a different video, for which he contacted another doctor who had been with them in Afghanistan. So he borrowed money from an uncle and drove from Los Angeles to Oregon to conduct some interviews. Some VA nurses said they were afraid to talk with him on camera about what happened to Russi. Others expressed a lot of pain.
“It really just broke my heart,” Ham said.
On a second trip, he brought in another producer, Marine veteran Mike Dowling, who had been a co-producer and military advisor on the Netflix show Medal of Honor. They did some more interviews, edited the footage and posted the video about a month ago, first on YouTube and then on the Change.org campaign site.
Ham hopes more people will look at the video and sign the petition. He hopes not only to help Russi get his job back, but also to raise awareness about the systemic problems he said lead the VA to push out good doctors.
“Ultimately I think we need to have a national conversation about the VA in a very serious way, more than just it’s troubled or there’s scandal here and there. This is a national problem, and we need a national solution,” he said.
Russi said he’d go back to the VA in a heartbeat, but only if things improved there.
He’s particularly concerned that many VA doctors are not board certified, which he said means they do not meet the standard to be hired in private practice. That’s one of the issues he raised as a VA whistle-blower, and it’s raised in “Stop the Line.”
He believes part of the reason he was fired was he was seen as a threat to the VA’s leadership team. While he worked there, he said, half that team — including the surgery chief who pushed him out — were not board certified.
Russi said unless the VA is able to hire and retain board certified doctors, it would be better to limit its practice to primary and mental health care, and to ensure veterans receive specialty care from better qualified doctors outside the VA.
“Hopefully the video will get some traction nationally and I get a voice to talk about what I think is important — substantial changes that need to be made in the VA to ensure that our veterans get good health care,” he said.
Several of the leaders Russi mentioned later lost their posts, following a report from VA Office of the Medical Inspector. Interim Roseburg VA Director Dave Whitmer pointed out that the same office reviewed Russi’s case and supported the decision to fire him.
“Dr. Russi is free to express his First Amendment rights and petition the government regarding this matter. However, this will not change the fact the Office of the Medical Inspector and the Office of Special Counsel both reviewed this case, including the peer review files that highlighted the clinical concerns and supported the Roseburg (VA’s) action to terminate his employment. I wish Dr. Russi luck in his future endeavors,” Whitmer said in an email.