Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-day Union-Bulletin series on staff and service delivery problems within the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla and its outlying community based outpatient clinics it administers regionally.
WALLA WALLA — Dr. Jonathan Hibbs has no doubts speaking out against the Department of Veterans Affairs is risky, despite that he resigned last month after eight years of treating veterans in Walla Walla and Yakima.
What people on the outside cannot grasp is how far the government’s lash can reach, striking employees and ex-employees alike, said Hibbs, who in Sunday’s Union-Bulletin told of his reasons for quitting the VA and spoke of its entrenched bureaucracy that he said puts policy before patient care.
“There are a lot of frightened people in the VA system,” he said. “The only ones employed there who are likely to talk ... are people who have a pro-leadership story to tell that has been specifically endorsed by their chain of command. Anyone with anything to say that could even be construed as negative will be substantially inhibited by an entirely rational fear of retaliation from chain of command.”
Media reports in July, for example, told of a pharmacy supervisor at a VA hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., who was suspended for two weeks then placed on paid leave after complaining about errors and delays in delivering medications to patients.
In Pennsylvania, a doctor was removed from clinical work after complaining that on-call doctors were refusing to go to a VA hospital in Wilkes-Barre.
Medical professionals from coast to coast have pointed out problems at the VA, only to suffer retaliation from supervisors and other high-ranking officials, according to a recent report by a private government watchdog.
The report compiled by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a group that conducts its own investigations and works with whistle-blowers, is based on comments and complaints filed by nearly 800 current and former VA employees and veterans. Those comments indicate concerns about the VA go far beyond the long waiting times or falsified appointment records that have received much recent attention from Congress and the media, extending to the quality of health care services veterans receive, the report said.
The group, an independent watchdog that champions government reform, set up a website in mid-May for complaints and said it has received allegations of wrongdoing from 35 states and the District of Columbia.
“A recurring and fundamental theme has become clear: VA employees across the country fear they will face repercussions if they dare to raise a dissenting voice,” said Danielle Brian, the group’s executive director. “Until we eliminate the culture of intimidation and climate of fear, no reforms will be able to turn this broken agency around.”
A federal investigative agency says it is examining 67 claims of retaliation by VA supervisors against employees who filed whistle-blower complaints. The independent Office of Special Counsel said 30 of the complaints have passed the initial review stage and are being further investigated for corrective action and possible discipline against VA supervisors and other executives.
The VA’s acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, issued a subpoena demanding that POGO turn over a list of whistle-blowers who filed complaints through its website, which is operated jointly with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The groups have refused, saying release of the names would violate the promise they made to whistle-blowers.
Such trepidation on a national scale is familiar, said Hibbs, who resigned in July as medical director for the VA’s Yakima community-based outpatient clinic, which is administered by the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla.
“What you may not realize is how deeply into the future the tentacles of that fear reach,” he said. “This is a very bad economic climate in which to be unemployed.
“I believe the VA is the largest single employer of health care workers in the country; certainly it is one of the largest. More than half my specialty have had some of their training in a VA hospital, and people in many health care professions may wish to be employed by or affiliated with a VA in the future. These are people who worked hard for their careers, and the idea that those careers may be brought to an end by conflict with an intransigent bureaucracy is justifiably terrifying.”
And it gets worse, Hibbs added.
“Now that medicine is so corporate in nature, with over 80 percent of physicians being employees, people are not only frightened of the VA — they are frightened of being perceived as a threat or irritant to ‘Big Medicine’ entities in general.”
He also is concerned that a number of new VA appointees, including new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, arrive at their positions from giant industrial and medical corporations.
The notion that employees must keep their opinions and suggestions confined within large bureaucracies is not limited to the VA, and there is fear that trouble will follow outspoken health care workers wherever they go, Hibbs pointed out.
“If the word ‘troublemaker’ can be changed to ‘whistle-blower,’ it looks a lot better in the newspaper,” Hibbs said. “But it’s still a lousy thing to have on your resume.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.