Millions of American heroes use the VA healthcare system. Veterans are a specific population that often needs specialized care, and their distinctive health needs deserve special care that is focused and appropriate. The VA is supposed to make this care accessible and affordable. They provide treatment for traumatic brain injuries, suicide prevention, women veterans and much more more.
All of this doesn’t just benefit veterans and their families, approximately 60% of all medical residents obtain a portion of their training at VA hospitals; and VA medical research programs benefit society at-large. The VA healthcare system has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930 to 152 hospitals, 800 community-based outpatient clinics, 126 nursing home care units and 35 dormitory-like hospitals.
The extent of all this seems as if it would meet the needs of our deserving veterans. Unfortunately, the standard of care that is being offered has been called into question often. We have seen tragedies happening all over the country, either due to overcrowding, under-funding, or just pure neglect.
The Phoenix VA hospital has been repeatedly in the spotlight and the director was formally removed in 2014. Sharon Helman was at the center of whistleblower complaints that exposed improper scheduling practices at VA Medical Centers in Phoenix and at other centers around the country.
Whistleblowers also divulged that Phoenix VA officials produced phony wait-time statistics and collected bonuses based on the false data. Aside from causing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, the scandals prompted the passage of a $15 billion reform bill. It appears that those changes, along with hundreds of staffing adjustments, didn’t fix the problem.
Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, chief of specialty care clinics at the Phoenix VA, became the latest heroic whistleblower to expose the clinics. His claims prompted two separate investigations. The Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) investigated scheduling allegations, while the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated allegations involving patient deaths.
Rodriguez’s claims were threefold. First, he alleged that there were over 35,000 Phoenix VAHCS (VA Healthcare System) patients waiting for consultative appointments and treatment. Second, he said that managers directed schedulers to cancel or discontinue pending consultative appointments without a required clinical review of the order. Finally, Mr. Rodriguez alleged that patients died while waiting for these specialty care appointments.
Obviously serious accusations, the investigations carefully investigated all of them and the conclusions are disturbing. The OMI investigation was unable to determine that 35,000 patients were waiting for specialty care. However, they did discover that, on average, Phoenix VAHCS has at least 1,100 patients waiting longer than 30 days for appointments.
The OMI report explained that there were especially significant wait times for psychotherapy appointments, with patients waiting an average of 75 days. Given the number of crimes being committed by mentally disturbed veterans, this is very concerning.
In response to the second allegation, the OMI report stated that, contrary to Rodriguez’s statements, leadership did not approve the improper cancellation of backlogged appointments. However, that report notes that “in a two-week period in October 2015, Phoenix VAHCS cancelled 3,862 patient appointments across all service lines. Of this number, 59 should have been rescheduled, but were not. The OMI report explained that 12 of these patients may have experienced a delay in care that could have caused possible or actual harm.”
The VA OIG reviewed Mr. Rodriguez’s allegations concerning patients who died waiting for specialty consultations. The OIG reviewed a total of 294 consults and concluded that care was improperly delayed in 62 of the 294. According to the OIG, “untimely care from PV ARCS may have contributed to the death of 1 patient.” Rodriguez continues to assert that this is not accurate.
Senator Chuck Grassley issued this statement on the findings: “Sometimes whistleblowers expose matters of life and death, other times they expose harm against the taxpayers, and sometimes they expose all of the above. Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez of the Phoenix VA deserves praise and gratitude for coming forward about problems that cover all of the above.”
At the end of 2016, the Phoenix VA convened an Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) against Rodriguez. He is accused of “workplace harassment” but Rodriguez and Coleman said they believe it is retaliation.
On January 12, Rodriguez will be questioned by the AIB and he expects a Kafka-like experience: “An AIB is a type of VA court convened by Phoenix VA executives who then render judgement on me on allegations that have no evidence. I’m denied my civil rights, can’t get information on what it’s about. Even after they are done still will not know what exactly I’m being charged with. Then they can send me home to begin termination proceedings.”
According to Coleman, he was “suspended and placed on administrative absence Feb. 2, 2015, for a supposed act of violence in the workplace — roughly two weeks after the Phoenix VA medical director’s first meeting about Coleman’s disclosures to the media.” His suspension was for 460 days!
“I don’t think a whistleblowers job is ever safe within the federal government for the rest of our careers. The Phoenix VA has proven, time and time again, no matter who the director is that they are willing to hunt a whistleblower to the ends of the earth in order to retaliate against them.”
It remains to be seen what consequences will be handed to Rodriguez but Coleman said that he should prepare himself for constant harassment from the VA.
Shouldn’t Obama be punished instead for these treasonous actions?