US

What It’s Like To Be Retaliated Against As A VA Whistle-Blower

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/Files

Michael Volpe Contributor

A Veterans Administration whistle-blower said that a Missouri VA hospital sold him a bill of goods while recruiting him and then retaliated when he complained.

Dr. Dale Klein blew the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse in the pain management clinic he ran in John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and he was recently terminated after months of legal wrangling.

Dr. Klein is a graduate of Yale Medical School and is board-certified in two specialties. He described his experiences in an interview with The Daily Caller.

During the recruitment process, he was told the hospital would undergo a major renovation so that he’d have a state of the-art pain management clinic with top-of-the-line equipment, and full staff on the first day he arrived.

He was even promised it would have a room for massage therapy.

When he arrived for his first day, on May 31, 2015, the hospital cleared out a couple of rooms, where his pain clinic would be while the renovations — which had already been promised would be completed — were purportedly being completed.

The massage therapy room has never been built.

While he had some of the state-of-the-art equipment, it wasn’t nearly as many as he said he was promised.

Some he couldn’t use, like a top-notch radiation machine, C-arm, which he has but can’t use because the machine requires a special room that has not been built.

These renovations have not been done to this day, and he still ran his pain clinic out of these rooms when he last worked in August 2017.

“People keep calling it a pain clinic, it lacked the infrastructure of a pain management clinic.”

He said he made complaints days after arriving about the difference between what he’d been promised and what was delivered.

Soon, he noticed so many problems the issues threatened patient safety.

When he took his concerns to management, he got a cold shoulder.

“They were uninterested and [told me] to just keep my mouth shut,” Klein said.

After concluding that nothing would be done by taking his case up the chain of command, Klein made a disclosure to the VA Office of Inspector General, which eventually found problems with how the hospital was administering opioid treatments.

Though disclosures to the inspector general are supposed to be discreet and the identity of the whistle-blower is supposed to be protected, the hospital began retaliating shortly after that.

It culminated in March 2016 with the hospital shutting down his clinic while moving him to an office a couple of miles away where he was given no work and told to sit and do nothing.

This continued until May 2017, and Klein described the process as akin to torture. He was moved into different offices a few times but was never told when it would end and only told to sit quietly in the office.

For part of the time, he was kept in a room so cold he had to wear a jacket to keep warm; another room was so hot it made him sweat.

For a few months, he sat in a cubicle where his neighbors were routinely making phone calls, chit-chatting, or making other noises, which made the area very loud, all while he said nothing.

He said it was mentally and physically painful.

“My back would bother me,” Klein told TheDC. “Mentally, there was no end time, not knowing how long it might go on was difficult.”

That’s because he got caught up in a power struggle between the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the hospital, with the hospital wanting to terminate him while the OSC protected his job to finish an investigation.

The OSC, Klein said, could never finish its investigation because it was waiting for documents that the VA refused to provide.

Finally, things came to a head in May 2017, when through a bureaucratic anomaly, the OSC couldn’t save his job any more.

As a result, his attorney, along with numerous other VA whistle-blowers like Germane Clarno of the Hines VA and Shea Wilkes of the Shreveport VA, organized a rally on his behalf.

It resulted in a plethora of media attention, including a story in TheDC.

Klein said he was still expecting to get terminated when he said here’s what happened next: “I was called into the director’s office and she handed me one piece of paper, which said, ‘we’re not going to fire you and we want you to see patients again.”

“This was a 180,” Klein stated, with consequences.

“There’s no clinic, no supplies, no nurse,” he said, “Where am I going to see patients, where are the supplies, where’s my nurse?”

He left the meeting with no further direction, except that he needed to start seeing patient the next Monday.

This set off a flurry of communication, which was previously shared with The Daily Caller, in which Klein was trying to get direction on a variety of issues.

“You’ve degraded my skills,” Klein said of his 14-month layoff, but the hospital did not provide any training or any other accommodation to get his skills sharpened.

He was eventually given a nurse and the same rooms which made up his clinic were cleared to provide him space, but nothing else was resolved.

Furthermore, the VA inspector general completed its report in May 2017, which confirmed his disclosures, and Klein disclosed to management and the VA inspector general that none of the issues raised in the report had yet been fixed.

Klein also said that Dr. Michael Adelman, the regional VA manager who decided his termination, refused to meet with him or his attorneys to get their side of things.

Dr. Adelman claimed the termination was because Klein refused orders to see patients. Klein said that he did have two consultations but that in general, the hospital created an environment in which seeing patients was nearly impossible.

Adelman’s role has come under fire because he is the regional director of a separate region; Adelman is regional director of Veteran Integrated Services Network (VISN) 4, while the Poplar Bluff VA is in VISN 15.

Adelman did not respond to an email for comment.

On the day he was terminated, Aug. 22, 2017, a manager came into his office, told him he was terminated, gave him less than half an hour to clear his things, and two VA police officers, one in front and one behind, escorted him off the premises.

A VA spokesperson gave this statement.

“Dr. Klein’s removal was in no way related to his protected activity.”

“VA is dedicated to ensuring Veterans get the best possible care. We encourage employees to identify anything that may impede VA’s mission and we take seriously any efforts to retaliate against those individuals.”

“Dr. Klein was employed as a physician at the Poplar Bluff VA Medical Center, and like all of our employees at VA, we expected him to do his job and, in his case, see patients.”

“He was removed for failure to follow orders related to his duties.”