Investigators from the U.S. Department of Veterans Health Administration Office of the Medical Inspector were on the Roseburg VA Medical Center campus as promised Monday and Tuesday. But it didn’t seem like they were really there to investigate employee retaliation and intimidation.
That’s according to Karl Tanner, president of the American Federation of Public Employees Local 1042, which represents Roseburg VA employees. Tanner said contrary to expectations of many current and former employees, the investigators appeared to be there to investigate a medical issue, and not employee complaints about harassment, intimidation and whistle-blower retaliation.
After Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, pushed investigators to interview employees about retaliation, Tanner said between 30 and 40 current and former employees wrote letters asking to speak to the investigators about intimidation and retaliation. He believes all but one were turned down, and said that one wasn’t questioned about intimidation and retaliation.
It turned out the investigators were looking into a medical care issue instead, and the people chosen for interviews were people connected with that. The interviews were about the medical issue, though interviewees were briefly asked if they had any information about intimidation and retaliation. If they started to bring something up, though, they were shut down and the conversation was redirected, Tanner said.
It’s possible the investigators will ask about intimidation and retaliation when they return Nov. 13, but it would be unusual for the Office of the Medical Inspector, since they don’t generally deal with administrative issues, Tanner said. Their mission is to investigate patient care, Tanner said. He said he can’t divulge what the medical issue is because of patient privacy restrictions.
Tanner is in a unique position to speak about employee treatment, since he’s retired from the VA, where he used to work as a recreational therapist. The union president is elected by its members, so the VA administration has no way of putting its thumb on him, he said.
Tanner said Roseburg VA employees are some of the best in the country, and committed to veteran care.
“We have what I believe is the greatest staff in the history of all of the VAs,” he said. “We have staff that make it through adversity and smile.”
But many employees face intimidation and retaliation. Some managers and supervisors are great, but others aren’t. And senior management officials, he said, are causing significant problems.
Since he became union president two years ago, Tanner has seen about 30 complaints filed with the Office of Special Counsel, and about 30 Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. It’s one of the highest levels in the country, he said.
He said people shouldn’t be bullied at the VA.
“We’re professionals, for Pete’s sake. We’re not kids. So we’re hoping for good change. We’re hoping for a positive outcome from this,” he said.
Director Doug Paxton confirmed investigators from the Office of Medical Inspector are conducting a review at the Roseburg VA, but didn’t offer details.
“At the end of the review, the Department of Veterans Affairs will take appropriate action as warranted,” he said in a written statement issued Friday afternoon.