Whistleblowers Offer Ideas For How Trump Can Fix The VA

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Michael Volpe Contributor
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Six prominent Veteran Administration whistleblowers offered the Trump administration some blunt advice on reforming that troubled medical system in recent interviews with The Daily Caller.

Sean Higgins: Memphis VA Medical Center

For more than two years, the Memphis VA Medical Center has dealt with a new scandal nearly every single month and Higgins is largely responsible. The hospital is on its third medical director this year.

Higgins said to get rid of chronic cronyism at most VA hospitals ninety percent of management would need to be terminated.

“You need to fire everyone from the director to the front line manager; that’s the only way you’ll get rid of the corrosive environment,” Higgins said. “You have to stop sticking people in jobs they are not qualified for.”

Higgins also said military personnel could work temporarily to get rid of backlogs.

“You have a shortage of doctors at the VA, every doctor that is behind on his reserve duty you put them on active duty in a VA hospital to work,” Higgins said. “They have a corpsman command right here in Memphis. Why couldn’t they be here in the Memphis VA working until the shortages.”

Higgins said calling up military for short term assignments — what he called “detailing” — would not cost the VA anything.

Brandon Coleman: Phoenix VA Medical Center

Coleman is a Marine veteran who worked as an addiction therapist at Phoenix, filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) where he alleged the VA was violating its policy of assigning one employee to every suicidal veteran. Coleman also said the VA wasn’t properly monitoring suicidal veterans in the emergency department.

As a result, his medical records were illegally accessed, he was put on leave, and a memo was circulated forbidding him from speaking to other staff members; Coleman recently snapped a photo of his license plate “THX VA” from his new 1968 Ford Mustang which he bought after settling with the VA.

Coleman said the VA needs to get back to three things — Transparency, accountability, and choice, and any solution would address those issues.

“Veterans should be able to go where they wanted to go,” Coleman stated.

Coleman also said all internal investigations are fatally flawed.

“The VA cannot be allowed to investigate itself,” Coleman said. “My case is a solid example as to what is wrong with the current system. When the VA was allowed to investigate itself they sent another VA agency called the Office of Medical Inspectors [OMI] out to the Phoenix facility to see if suicidal vets were really eloping (escaping) like I disclosed was happening.”

Coleman said internal investigators continued make misstatements in their ongoing, only finally being held accountable after massive media pressure.

Coleman favors an outside agency like the OSC taking the lead in any VA investigation over all internal investigative arms including the VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) which Coleman believes is fatally flawed and compromised.

OSC would need far more resources — including significant increases in staff — Coleman said 45-55 percent of all OSC’s cases come from the VA.

OSC would investigate whistleblower workplace complaints for the entire federal government.

Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck: G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi

Dr. Hollenbeck discovered that at the direction of hospital management improperly licensed nurse practitioners were illegally prescribing drugs to patients. Dr. Hollenbeck is unique in that within a week of filing her OSC complaint the agency began an investigation; OSC even introduced  Dr. Hollenbeck to a New York Times reporter; most whistleblowers get far less support.

Dr. Hollenbeck said the VA should provide less medical services but excel in the ones it provides.

Her idea would require a radical re-thinking of their model, with veterans being given the option to get medical care outside the system.

“They would have to have a private option; I don’t see it working anyway else,” Hollenbeck said, noting payment for the private option would need to be handled by on an outside agency.

She said the CHOICE program, which attempts to give veterans this option, is too cumbersome and a more customer-friendly program would need to be developed.

Dr. Hollenbeck also said the VA needs a significant boost in morale and provided an idea, give all VA employees VA shirts with the option to wear them at work- those who wear the shirts are buying into the culture and the others probably need to go.

Christopher “Shea” Wilkes: Overton Brooks Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana

Wilkes, a veteran, exposed a secret wait list in that hospital’s mental health department; Wilkes was criminally investigated and had his medical records illegally accessed before the OSC issued a scathing letter to VAOIG on his case, he testified in Congress, and was featured in a whistleblower summit.

Stressing accountability like Coleman, Wilkes also said the VA needs to overhaul its internal investigative process.

“Not only AIB (administrative investigative board) but any type of internal investigation and/or investigation by OIG will be dictated by the good ole boys of VA. The VA will control the investigation and what information is allowed to be presented,” Wilkes said. “Again, the system is run from top to bottom by good ole boys who will cover for each other at all cost. Until you clean up the layers of incompetent unethical leaders then you’re going to struggle with having any type of legit investigation.”

“It is obvious that the current VA is unable to govern itself properly. When an AIB is called there needs to be a team assembled that is not affiliated with the director in any form or fashion. This is hard to accomplish n VA thus it may be best if VA’s hire outside agencies who are given full range to conduct full investigations.”

Like Dr. Hollenbeck, Wilkes believes the VA should cut many services but provide more specialized care in the services it provides; he singled out optometry and dentistry as examples of places to cut.

“Let’s say I want to see an optometrist it will take me ten months in the VA, but I can do it this afternoon at Walmart,” Wilkes said.

Germaine Clarno-: Edward J. Hines VA Medical Center in Hines, Illinois

Clarno also brought forward a secret wait list; she has since testified in front of Congress, was the subject of the same OSC letter which mentioned Wilkes, and joined him at the whistleblower summit.

Clarno said the first thing the new VA Secretary should do is meet with whistleblowers and front line employees — those who deal with the patients — without the managers: “Your front-line employees know what’s going on.”

She also condemned the VA practice of shuffling bad managers to new hospitals: “If problems happen at the VA you’re at, you should stay to fix them.”

Like Coleman, Clarno would like to see OSC have more investigative power, calling all internal investigative controls fatally flawed.

Clarno singled out the administrative investigative board- an internal VA investigative body which is often convened before the VA terminates an employee- as especially flawed.

Among the problems in AIB’s, she included: the target doesn’t understand the process, is not told why they are being investigated, and even when it’s completed they are not given the file; targets must make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the file and pay fees.

Clarno said AIBs must adhere to rules of evidence and due process as in courtrooms to be effective.

James DeNofrio: James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania

DeNofrio triggered an OSC investigation into improper patient care at the Altoona VA; shortly before it was completed, the Altoona VA Director, William Mills, high tailed it to Memphis, where he was director for four months before retiring.

DeNofrio is the poster child for the problems with the VA AIB process: he was the target of an AIB, convened by Mills, shortly after word spread of the OSC investigation and he was never told of the charges while it proceeded.

The AIB dragged on for nearly a year and  was only completed after media pressure; now fully exonerated, DeNofrio was not given the file and currently needs to pay $313.20 to receive his 2,188 page file through FOIA.

DeNofrio offered the bluntest assessment, saying the entire system is in disrepair.

“The VA is such a bureaucratic behemoth that no one person could fix,” he said.

He believes the VA medical services should be entirely privatized, with the VA still paying for veterans’ benefits.

He’s also been disappointed with the vetting so far of the VA Secretary: “I have been disappointed that the VA secretary is last on the list.”

While retiring Congressman Jeff Miller, former Concerned Veterans of America Chief Executive Officer Pete Hegseth, and former US Senator Scott Brown have been mentioned for the role, there has been less movement on picking the VA secretary than other high-profile cabinet positions.

This piece has been updated to clarify remarks made by James DeNofrio.