Despite scrutiny, whistleblowers say problems persist at Phoenix VA

Dr. Katherine L. Mitchell,medical director at the Phoenix VA Health Care System's Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center, testifies at a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on the Phoenix VA report on Sept. 17, 2014.

Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 6, 2014

Employees of the beleaguered Phoenix VA health care system say many of the problems that led to a nationwide scandal still plague the system five months after revelations of patients dying on secret wait lists, falsified data and a toxic culture.

“As far as the administrative culture, I haven’t seen any change at all,” said Phoenix VA doctor Katherine Mitchell, who was reassigned after reporting problems with emergency care at the hospital. “Certainly, my chain of command hasn’t been changed.”

While VA Secretary Eric Shinseki lost his job over the revelations and current secretary Bob McDonald has promised sweeping reforms, senior leaders directly implicated in the wrongdoing — and widely blamed for creating a toxic workplace culture — continue to draw their salaries. Making meaningful workplace change will be difficult, according to current and former employees of the Phoenix VA health care system, without new leaders.

Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman, who is on paid administrative leave, and her chief of staff, Darren Deering, who remains in his job, have come under fire from current and former Phoenix employees, who are perplexed that they still have their jobs.

“Until the VA holds some of those people accountable, nothing is going to change,” said Paula Pedene, a former spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA Health Care System who was reassigned to a basement library after speaking out about systemic problems.

Mitchell and Pedene recently received settlements from the VA after filing complaints with the Office of Special Counsel, saying senior Phoenix VA leaders retaliated against them for reporting problems. Many of the details of the settlements, including whether or not there was monetary compensation, are confidential, but Pedene got a new job in VA communications and Mitchell was given a position in quality care management.

Even as the scandal unfolded, and the Phoenix VA system came under harsh scrutiny, the hospital did not use Pedene, their 20-year veteran spokeswoman. Instead, she worked in the basement library while they flew in public affairs specialists from around the country to deal with the crisis.

The continuing problems go beyond Phoenix, according to Dr. James Martin, a VA doctor and national representative of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.

“The leadership that is in place at the local facilities is the same leadership that was there before the embarrassing facts were known,” he said. “There’s still a climate of denial.”

Martin, who recently met with McDonald, applauded the new secretary’s efforts but said much more needs to be done.

“Hopefully, we are going to be able to make things better, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

In an emailed response to questions from Stars and Stripes, McDonald said he has made it clear that whistleblower retaliation will not be tolerated, pointing to the recent settlements with Mitchell, Pedene and a third Phoenix whistleblower as steps toward better protection for VA employees who speak out. He also said the VA will hold bad leaders accountable.

“Secretary Shinseki began the process of removing senior leaders at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. I agree with that decision,” McDonald said. “There continue to be investigations in Phoenix, and once those are complete, we will be able to hold employees who have violated our values accountable and we will do so to the letter of the law. But from my travels to more than 30 VA sites over the last 60 days, I see that the overwhelming majority of them are doing their best every day to serve Veterans. I saw that in Phoenix and I’ve seen that across the country.”

Messages left with Helman’s attorney and at Deering’s office were not returned. A woman who answered the phone in Deering’s office said, “Well, we get a lot of criticism, so we’re kind of numb to it.”

A spokesman for the Phoenix VA said he had to run media requests through the VA’s national communication office.

The scandal broke in May, with revelations that the Phoenix VA had created a secret list in order to make patient wait times seem shorter, numbers that were tied to some officials’ bonuses. Patients were languishing for months and, according to a VA inspector general’s report, 293 died while awaiting care. Helman, Deering and other leaders have also been accused of creating a hostile workplace environment in which employees were punished for speaking out.

For Pedene, that retaliation came in the form of losing the job she loved and had served in for nearly two decades. After she spoke out about financial improprieties, she was transferred to a clerical job, yet continued to collect the salary of a senior government employee.

“It hurts my heart to talk about it,” Pedene said.

Mitchell was reassigned from her job as emergency room director after she reported serious problems at the ER, including improper triage protocol. She said many employees are still afraid to speak out or even be associated with those who have because the leadership has not changed.

“There were some employees that requested that I not send them emails and not speak with them in the hallway because they worried management might think I was getting information from them,” she said. “They didn’t trust their manager not to retaliate against them.”

As more whistleblowers have come forward, the scandal has extended far beyond Phoenix, showing a deeply troubled department and a national crisis in veterans care just as the system is absorbing hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some with serious injuries and long-term ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the most vocal critics has been Samuel Foote, the pugnacious, longtime Phoenix VA physician with glasses and long gray sideburns who has become the face of the VA whistleblower movement. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Foote, who testified on Capitol Hill about the scandal, said that in addition to firing bad leaders and turning around the hostile work environment, the VA needs to rethink its core mission.

He and others said doctors are still being crushed by patient loads, a problem that has worsened since the scandal broke. Today, more veterans are being brought in for care in a timely manner, and the VA is struggling to hire doctors to address a longstanding shortfall.

It’s a problem that Foote, who recently retired from the VA, said will require more than just hiring health care professionals.

“I think [VA] should take care of anybody who has a service-connected condition, anyone who served in combat, and it should still be there for the homeless, the mentally ill, the poorest of our veterans,” he said. “But it’s going to need to relook at its resources and decide what its core mission is going to be, and if it decides it wants to take care of everybody for everything, it’s going to have to have help from the private sector.”

Mitchell, who also testified in front of a congressional committee, about problems with the VA medical system, said wait times have improved at Phoenix since the hospital was forced to get rid of its secret wait list, but that little else has changed. Last month, she submitted a 55-page document to the House Veterans Affairs Committee that outlined problems and suggested solutions. So far, she said, none has been implemented.

“Right now, I’m not seeing action on anything I did (at the hearing),” she said. “Unless they address those issues, there’s going to be significant problems for veterans coming in.”

Both Mitchell and Foote say they are skeptical of the ongoing investigation into the scandal, which is being overseen by the VA.

“I’m a little wary of them simply because the VA is investigating itself, and that hasn’t gone well in the past,” Mitchell said.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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