The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center issued a strongly worded rebuke Friday of a former employee who alleged her firing was whistle-blower retaliation.
Laura Follett, a 15-year Navy veteran who worked for the Roseburg VA at its Eugene clinic from 2014 to 2016, told The News-Review this week she lost her job because she refused to agree when supervisors wanted to bend the rules about the primary care teams she was hired to organize. Her story appeared on page A1 Thursday.
The VA initially declined comment, due to privacy restrictions, but after Follett signed a release of information form, it issued a response Friday to Follett’s allegations.
The VA alleged the real reason Follett was fired wasn’t because she was a whistle-blower. Rather, it said her performance was substandard. It also said she was “volatile, aggressive and unprofessional, creating a stressful environment for other employees.”
The VA hired Follett as a medical support assistant in June 2014, and six months later promoted her to primary care management module coordinator. In that position, she organized primary care teams and their patients. She said her troubles at work began when she was reassigned to a different “chain of command” under a different supervisor in October 2015. She was fired six months afterward, but challenged the decision with an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and was reinstated. She alleged retaliation continued on her return. Ultimately, she reached a settlement with the VA, under which she resigned her position and the VA paid her $40,000.
The VA’s stated reason for firing her was a mistake she made entering data, which it said led to thousands of North Bend clinic patients being erroneously found eligible for the choice program. That meant they were OK’d to see non-VA doctors. It also said she provided false information in a memo that asserted the choice program data was correct. Follett admitted the mistake, but said she corrected it and that the VA exaggerated its impact. She said most of the veterans were already eligible for choice due to lengthy delays for appointments. She said she didn’t write the memo, which was signed by the VA director.
Follett said she challenged supervisors over decisions that violated VA policy. She said some of those decisions, such as one allowing licensed practical nurses to sub for more highly trained registered nurses, compromised patient safety. She said her insistence on following the rules was met with hostility.
She alleged one of her supervisors condescendingly called her “Laura, Laura, Laura” every time she spoke to her, and that another lunged at her and yelled so loudly he was heard by other employees who were outside the closed door.
The VA said “there is no truth” to Follett’s accusations about the second supervisor. It didn’t address her allegations about the first.
During her brief return to the job after the initial firing, Follett said supervisors routinely ignored her, walking past her desk to speak with another employee who had been given her job.
The VA offered a different version of events. 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, it said in a statement Friday.
“Her performance in her short time with (the) VA was substandard, she did not fully understand the scope of her position and could not competently perform her duties, causing numerous errors,” it said.
The statement went on to say she failed to update computer systems for which she was responsible, “resulting in mismanagement that had to be corrected by other staff.”
It said she was volatile and aggressive with her coworkers.
“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.
Follett’s attorney KC Huffman said in an email that all the performance ratings Follett received from the VA labeled her work outstanding. He also noted the VA rescinded its initial decision to fire her, and said that showed it “acted improperly” when it fired her.
Follett said she found the VA’s Friday statement about her performance “infuriating.”
She said she never claimed to be perfect, but she was “meticulous” in her work. She said she had a good relationship with her peers.
“I don’t know how they can say what they’re saying,” she said. “It’s hard to formulate a response to something that’s a lie.”
The News-Review spoke with two of Follett’s former coworkers, who said the VA’s description of Follett’s performance didn’t sound accurate. Both said “she went above and beyond” to ensure veterans received the care they needed.
Kim Goodwin, a former medical support assistant at the VA, said she was “flabbergasted” when she heard Follett had been fired. She recalled an incident where a patient dying of cancer had been waiting two years to be assigned a primary care doctor. Goodwin said she brought the problem to Follett’s attention, and Follett had the patient assigned to a doctor within a week.
Goodwin described Follett as a friend who is “genuine at heart,” and a woman who would never have been aggressive toward her coworkers.
“She’s more of a quiet person,” Goodwin said.
Cassandra Sherman is a health benefits advisor at the VA. She was a medical support assistant assigned to primary care during Follett’s tenure. Sherman said she’s worked at both the Roseburg hospital and the Eugene clinic, and the morale in both places is terrible. She described the atmosphere as a “culture of fear,” where employees are afraid to speak up for fear of being fired.
She said the VA’s description “does not sound like the Laura I know, at all.”
Sherman said Follett worked “a ton of overtime” to help veterans, and was constantly in touch with the regional office to ensure she was doing things correctly.
She also said Follett was well liked.
“I don’t think anyone disliked her. So when this whole thing went down with her it was very shocking, very shocking and unexpected,” she said.