The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has rejected a claim by a surgeon who alleged retaliation after he was fired from the Eugene clinic of the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center last year.
Retired Air Force Col. Scott Russi’s case was prominently mentioned in congressional testimony about whistle-blower retaliation at the Roseburg VA and other VAs around the country. Soon after that, Congress passed a law intended to protect whistle-blowers, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, called for an investigation into whistle-blower retaliation at the Roseburg VA.
Russi, who had been deployed four times as a combat surgeon including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, was the trauma medical director at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield before joining the VA in January 2017. In August, he was fired.
Russi alleged he was fired because he complained that his agreed-upon salary wasn’t fully paid, and because he challenged then-chief of surgery Dinesh Ranjan over a surgical procedure. Russi also said he challenged Ranjan over the VA’s practice of not having surgeons on call, which meant patients with post-surgical complications couldn’t contact surgeons. In one incident, Russi said, a patient who had a hernia operation was forced to sit in the emergency room overnight for 13 hours with an actively bleeding wound because the surgeon couldn’t be contacted until morning.
Russi filed a claim saying he was wrongfully fired. Last week, the Office of Special Counsel ruled against him.
Russi said he plans to appeal the Office of Special Counsel’s decision, which he said was disappointing because the office is supposed to protect veterans and it’s “obviously not doing that.”
“Corruption runs deeper than just at the local treatment facility level, it’s at the national. It’s even within the agencies that are put in place to protect the veterans from wrongdoing of the leadership,” he said.
In a letter to Russi explaining the decision, Office of Special Counsel attorney Wonjun Lee said Russi did not have due process rights because he was a part-time employee.
Russi said he had been moved to full-time status in July, but Lee said a letter to that effect didn’t count because additional approvals were needed. He said Russi was notified verbally about that, an assertion Russi denied.
Lee also characterized the dispute between Russi and Ranjan differently, saying Russi had objected to Ranjan’s decision not to proceed with an operation to repair a hernia after the patient had been sedated.
Ranjan was the one who complained to the VA’s credentialing committee about four of Russi’s cases, the move that led to his firing. However, Lee said Ranjan didn’t vote on the firing, and it was then-director Doug Paxton who made the final decision.
“While you have disputed the Agency’s allegations of your providing substandard care, we have determined that reasonable minds could have supported your termination based on the concerns presented and your employment status,” Lee wrote to Russi. He also said the he found no “evidence of animus” against Russi from either Paxton or the committee.
Russi said he couldn’t see how Lee could find no animus. He said Office of the Medical Inspector officials investigating whistle-blower retaliation at the Roseburg VA found the “entire institution was rife with it.”
The Office of the Medical Inspector, however, agreed with the Roseburg VA’s decision to fire Russi.
Roseburg VA Interim Director Dave Whitmer said the surgeries underwent peer review after anesthesia providers and another surgeon expressed concerns. He said Ranjan directed the reviews, which were completed by surgeons at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
One of those cases involved a significant clinical complication, he said, and an anesthesia provider in Roseburg conducted an additional review of the veteran’s pre-operative evaluation and “identified evidence of poor clinical judgement by Dr. Russi,” Whitmer said.
The Office of the Medical Inspector found the Roseburg VA “followed all proper procedures in terminating Dr. Russi,” Whitmer said.
“This matter is now in litigation and I’m confident the VA will prevail given the overwhelming evidence and documentation supporting our case. I met Dr. Russi in April and spoke with him regarding this case. I respect his service to our country and wish Dr. Russi well in his future endeavors, but I support the decisions made by previous leadership regarding his termination,” Whitmer said.
The VA had not previously commented because it doesn’t comment on personnel issues unless a waiver is signed, but Russi signed a waiver for the VA to specifically discuss the OMI report.
Russi also provided The News-Review with copies of letters from six doctors who independently reviewed Russi’s work on the cases that allegedly led to his firing. All six, including VA Northern California Health Care System Chief of Surgery Scott Hulidahl, found Russi’s work acceptable. Hulidahl said two of the three cases he reviewed would not have triggered a review at his VA. The third, involving a nerve injury following the removal of a basal cell carcinoma, would have been reviewed but would probably have been found acceptable because it is a “known” and “notorious” complication, Hulidahl said.
Russi also cited a recent decision by the Oregon Medical Board, which closed an investigation against Russi in April after ruling in his favor in a complaint initiated by VA officials.
Russi is currently practicing at a private clinic called Avante Surgical in Eugene.
Ranjan stepped down from his position in January, following the OMI investigation. He’s been reassigned to oversee surgical telehealth services for the regional VA Northwest Network.
Paxton also stepped down from his job following the investigation, and was reassigned in March as a portfolio manager for the VA’s Veterans Engineering Resource Center.