Laura Follett said she still has nightmares about working at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Follett said she is a whistle-blower who was fired for refusing to bend the rules, re-hired after she filed a complaint, and then retaliated against until she resigned. She left the VA with a $40,000 settlement, increased anxiety and the conviction that she, a 15-year Navy veteran, would never return to the VA, not even for medical treatment.
According to allegations in VA documents about her termination, Follett was fired because she made a mistake, and lied in a memo saying her work was accurate. Follett admits the mistake, though she said the VA exaggerated the impact. She said she didn’t write the memo.
The VA hired Follett in June 2014 as a medical support assistant. Six months later, she was promoted to primary care management module coordinator. It was a big step up, putting her in charge of organizing primary care teams and their patients. Things went well, she said, until October 2015, when she was reassigned to a different “chain of command” under a different supervisor.
Six months later, she was fired.
Follett asserts she lost her job because she repeatedly refused to accept management decisions that violated federal rules about the way primary care teams were organized — rules she said help protect patients. For example, she said the VA wanted to allow licensed practical nurses to substitute in for registered nurses, who have a higher level of training. Follett said that could put patients at risk.
Follett said she ran afoul of supervisors after she corrected a supervisor during a morning meeting about the rules of the choice program, which allows some VA patients to see doctors outside the VA. The supervisor screamed at her afterward, she said. According to Follett, the same supervisor frequently said, “Laura, Laura, Laura” in a contemptuous way when she spoke to Follett.
Another supervisor tried to form a staff team for a new physician in a way that violated VA regulations and compromised patient safety. When Follett objected, she said the supervisor lunged at her and yelled so loudly that other employees heard him outside a closed door.
In a proposed termination memo dated Feb. 26, 2016, the VA alleged Follett was being fired for “careless or negligent workmanship” that led to 5,600 patients of the North Bend clinic being incorrectly approved for the choice program. It also referenced a Dec. 10, 2015, memo, signed by the VA director and allegedly written by Follett. The VA said the memo provided false information that the choice program data was correct.
In a letter dated March 11, 2016, Springfield attorney K.C. Huffman asked the VA to reinstate Follett. He noted her performance ratings were outstanding.
“A full investigation of the facts will reveal that as opposed to having her employment terminated, Laura should be commended for her outstanding work done for the fellow veterans she serves,” Huffman wrote.
Huffman said that 5,600 number is inflated, overstating North Bend patient numbers by about 2,600 people. It also didn’t account for the fact that many of those veterans were already eligible for choice under another provision, because they faced 30-day delays for appointments. Follett said she caught and corrected her mistake in early January.
Huffman said the “memo” was from a previous report, forwarded to Follett’s supervisor as an example of what might be written after a quarterly report was completed. Follett didn’t intend for it to become a memo signed by the director, he said.
He also wrote that it’s unlikely Follett would have been fired at all, had the VA not broken its own rules by appointing the health administration services chief rather than the primary care chief as her supervisor.
The VA employee who would determine whether Follett kept her job was the fiancee of one of the supervisors she said was retaliating against her. Huffman asked the VA to assign another person to decide her case. The VA subsequently assigned a different person to make the decision, but, according to Follett, it was an employee who reported to the supervisor’s fiancee.
Follett filed an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board, and was temporarily returned to work in July, where she said the retaliation continued. She said another employee had been given her job, and he remained in the position, despite there now being two people with the same title. She said supervisors would walk past her desk to talk to him, ignoring her.
Follett’s case went to mediation. In December 2016, the parties reached a settlement agreement. Follett was paid $40,000 and agreed to resign.
Follett said the post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression from which she already suffered grew worse as the alleged retaliation progressed. She cried a lot and had difficulty sleeping and concentrating. During a meeting with her union president, she began dry heaving. Her medications and therapy visits increased.
Follett said 99 percent of the VA employees, the “boots on the ground,” are good people who care about the patients. The problem, she said, is management.
She doesn’t agree with the Douglas County Veterans Forum, which recently gave a vote of no confidence against the chief of surgery, but made it clear they approve of Director Doug Paxton’s performance.
“Mr. Paxton is the captain of his ship, and ultimately he is responsible for what’s going on. And he knows what’s going on. It’s his job to know,” she said.
Follett said she no longer trusts the VA with her own health care.
“Mr. Paxton talks about caring for the veterans, well I am one of those veterans. How much did he care about me?” she said.
The News-Review wasn’t able to reach Follett’s former supervisors for comment.
VA spokesman Shanon Goodwin initially said due to privacy restrictions, the VA can’t comment on job performance of past employees unless they sign a written consent form. After Follett signed the form, the VA responded Friday morning with criticism of Follett's job performance.
It said Follett's behavior on the job wasn't what it expects from VA employees, and that she didn't meet job expectations. That's why her supervisor determined she was an unfit employee and recommended termination, the statement said.
"Her performance in her short time with VA was substandard, she did not fully understand the scope of her position and could not competently perform her duties, causing numerous errors.
The statement went on to list examples of her "incompetence," saying she failed to update computer systems for which she was responsible, "resulting in mismanagement that had to be corrected by other staff."
The VA also said her behavior was "volatile, aggressive and unprofessional, creating a stressful environment for other employees."
"She refused to listen to reason and good-faith advice from both her peers and supervisors. She did not want to work as a team player and ostracized coworkers," the statement said.
It also said there's no truth to her allegations about the supervisor she said lunged at her and yelled so loudly other employees could hear him through a closed door.
“The VA does not tolerate retaliation,” Goodwin said in an earlier written statement Wednesday. “Any employees who feel they are experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.”