After hearing a preliminary report from investigators Thursday, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said he believes senior Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center officials will be reassigned or removed.
DeFazio was briefed Thursday on the results of a recent investigation by the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
Investigators interviewed about 200 VA employees in November and December, many about whistle-blower retaliation. DeFazio had called for the investigation after receiving hundreds of complaints about mismanagement and problems with patient care at the Roseburg VA and its Eugene clinic.
DeFazio cautioned the results he heard Thursday are preliminary and the investigation is ongoing; however, from what he heard, he believes change will be made to the VA’s “toxic culture,” and that change will likely include management changes.
“I think that action will be taken to reassign, remove, in one way or another, a number of the senior officials who by the accounts we hear from employees are principally responsible for these problems,” DeFazio said in an interview Thursday.
The Roseburg VA issued this response Thursday afternoon:
“We appreciate the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection’s investigation, and Roseburg VA Health Care System is cooperating fully,” it said. “(VA Secretary David) Shulkin has made it clear that VA will hold employees accountable when the facts demonstrate that they have failed to live up to the high standards veterans and taxpayers expect. That is exactly what we will do in this case. In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we can’t comment further.”
DeFazio said even as the investigation was underway, two emergency room doctors invited to speak with a senior official from the national VA faced retaliation for doing so. A senior Roseburg VA administrator who “has previously been involved in some dubious activities” was involved in the retaliation, DeFazio said.
“He has the temerity, with all this ongoing investigation, to file an inappropriate — at least what I regard as an inappropriate — complaint, and put it on the record of these two ER docs. So we’ve added that to the investigation,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio said he couldn’t name any of the individuals involved or the senior leaders he thought might be removed from their posts.
When investigators return to the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center next week, they’ll…
A team from the National Center for Organizational Development will be sent to help the VA change its culture both at Roseburg and Eugene, he said.
DeFazio also said the VA plans to make changes to the emergency room admissions process, identified as a significant problem by a group of the VA’s emergency room doctors. Rules will be changed and clarified to offer temporary assistance to veterans who might not be sick enough for hospital admission but might be unable to care for themselves, he said.
Investigators didn’t give a firm date for when their final report would be complete. DeFazio is urging the VA to move quickly. He asked the investigative team to provide its final results and implement reform within weeks rather than months.
He pledged to continue pushing for results.
“This isn’t the end yet. I’m going to stay on top of this. I’m going to continue to push for more clarification and answers. I’m not going to let it rest. This has gone on for too long,” he said.
DeFazio said Shulkin has been directly involved in the investigations and has committed to working closely with his office to address many problems identified by investigators.
He said the Roseburg VA has suffered for years from mismanagement, which has resulted in difficulty recruiting and retaining good doctors and impacted patient care.
“This is something that has been brewing for years, and it’s going to take awhile to work it all out,” he said.
He said he feels the investigation is a good start to correcting those problems.
“This is progress way beyond what I’ve gotten previously when I’ve raised similar concerns in the past,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden also attended Thursday’s meeting, and issued a statement afterward saying what he heard was that steps have been taken to improve veteran care at the Roseburg VA. He said he asked for follow-up on those steps.
“I will be bird-dogging this issue both to ensure what’s been done is succeeding — and that what’s planned will make the VA’s Roseburg system a place worthy of the veterans who rely on it for quality health care,” he said.
Former Eugene VA surgeon Scott Russi said he was encouraged by what DeFazio and Wyden said about the investigation today. Russi is a whistle-blower who was fired from the VA last year and subsequently mentioned in testimony DeFazio gave on a whistle-blower protection bill.
“I think they’re pushing the right direction for change,” he said Thursday. He said the Roseburg VA needs a new director.
“After all, it’s still a one-star facility under Mr. Paxton, so it really hasn’t done much for the VA and the veterans,” he said.
At a recent VA town hall meeting, Russi said he was approached by the director, who reached out his hand and introduced himself as Douglas Paxton, director of the VA. Russi said it appeared Paxton didn’t recognize him.
“I looked at him, and I said, well my name is Dr. Russi, and I don’t have a job. And at that point, his face got very white, and he turned around and walked away, didn’t say another word to me,” Russi said.
Russi said he hopes the replacements for leaders who get pushed out won’t be part of the VA’s “old guard.” In the past, the VA has been criticized for allegedly moving bad managers from one facility to another, rather than firing them.
DeFazio said he hopes the VA will avoid that problem by following a recently passed whistle-blower protection law that mandates managers who retaliate against whistle-blowers be fired on the second offense.
“I think Congress has already made it clear we don’t want musical chairs,” DeFazio said. “We want accountability. We want quality. We want stability.”