Numerous Veterans Affairs whistleblowers are ecstatic over the recent firing of Secretary David Shulkin, who had a personal hand in selecting hospital directors who allegedly continued a history of meting out retaliation and abuse against informants.
Running on a campaign promise to clean up the VA, President Trump appointed holdover Shulkin to replace Robert McDonald whose tenure had exploded with allegations of secret wait lists, needless deaths, and substandard hospital conditions. On paper, Shulkin appeared to be a good pick with a background in corporate health care.
But for insiders, Shulkin’s appointment was depressing news because he oversaw hospital operations under MacDonald where the atrocities festered. He was fired on March 28 after news reports showed he allegedly took his wife on a $122,000 European business trip with extensive sightseeing at taxpayer expense. Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor, is tapped to take his place.
Fired whistleblower Dr. Dale Klein, a pain specialist at the Poplar Bluff, Missouri VA hospital, wasted no time in calling a VA lawyer to ask for his job back. Klein’s previously-thwarted attempts to be reinstated could likely move ahead now that Shulkin was gone. “You heard what happened in Washington. That person is no longer involved in this,” the attorney told Klein.
Klein was fired last year after reporting extensive wrongful opiate diagnoses by other doctors at his hospital, claims that were upheld by the VA Inspector General in a 2017 report. He tested the urine of numerous patients and found they were either overmedicated or had no signs of painkillers in their bloodstream. The latter still requested prescription refills which were likely sold on the street. After complaining, Klein was banished to an office and not allowed to see patients for 16 months.
The Office of Special Counsel wrote in a June 2017 report that “OSC has reasonable grounds to believe that the VA’s proposed removal of Dr. Klein is retaliation for protected (whistleblower) activities.”
Klein was fired two months later.
“This is good news that Shulkin is gone and it could lead to a settlement agreement,” Klein said. “I told people for a long time that Shulkin was going to get fired and it may open things for my case.”
VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour said Klein’s termination was in no way related to his whistleblower activities, rather “he was removed for failure to follow orders related to his duties.”
Klein said the VA made up the excuse that he refused to return to work; he has copies of daily emails where he pleaded to return.
In another case, a Pennsylvania whistleblower found 5,000 pages of his medical file and complaints to the Inspector General uploaded on a public VA server. Sixteen employees — including many from the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C. — accessed the file of James DeNofrio from the Altoona VA hospital. This occurred after DeNofrio made the allegations that a doctor was working while impaired and a 400-patient secret waiting list existed.
DeNofrio complained about the “filegate” incident in a letter to Shulkin and asked for an investigation. This was denied, he said. A federal administrative law judge ruled this year that any correction would be denied, even though a 2017 VA letter admits to the HIPAA violation and tells DeNofrio to “take appropriate steps to protect yourself against identity theft.”
Cashour responded, “VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employees who feel they are experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection immediately.”
Perhaps the most controversial move that Shulkin made occurred when he personally installed Rima Nelson as director of the notorious Phoenix VA Hospital, which was Ground Zero for the waitlist avalanche. In 2013 the hospital became the focus of the first of many news reports outlining a secret wait list where veterans languished for years waiting to be seen by a doctor. Hospital bureaucrats initiated the wait lists so that their patient care numbers would look good to Washington, ensuring bonuses, investigations found.
The director at that time was fired and four more came and went, including Deborah Amdur, who lasted only a year and retired in 2016. During that final year, another wait list scandal erupted when whistleblower Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez came forward to say 90 veterans waited 400 days for care and another 4,000 had their appointments inexplicably canceled.
Nelson became the next director, hand-picked by Shulkin who even traveled to Phoenix to hold a press conference announcing her appointment. He defended his pick to members of Congress who asked that she not be appointed.
Nelson was formerly from the St. Louis VA, where a dirty dental clinic led to exposure of HIV and hepatitis to 1,800 veterans. The hospital also ranked at the bottom in quality on a national internal ranking. Phoenix has also had a poor showing, ranking 1 out of 5 during the past two years of Nelson’s tenure.
Rodriguez has endured continued harassment under Nelson’s watch, an investigation has found. Rodriguez was given a letter that is the first step toward termination and has had his workload increased beyond any one person’s capability, which would show that he is incompetent and should be fired, Rodriguez said.
“I have had people threaten to assault me and I have even had death threats,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve moved me to an office that was formerly a closet.”
Puerto Rico hasn’t been immune to problems either. Over there, whistleblower Joseph Colon disclosed that hospital director DeWayne Hamlin was arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs. Hamlin was later fired – and reinstated by a VA review board. His successor, Antonio Sanchez, signed the documents suspending Colon as punishment, the Daily Wire found.
“How do you replace one retaliator with another if you are talking about changing the culture?” Colon asked. “Hamlin and Sanchez tried to fire me twice. If it wasn’t for former Congressman Jeff Miller of the House VA Committee intervening, I wouldn’t have a job.”
Colon said he is excited about Jackson taking over the leadership.
“He was a combat veteran who served in Iraq. He doesn’t owe a favor to anyone,” Colon said. “Admirals and generals believe in accountability. What better choice to have the secretary of the VA, a person who served in combat and knows the mental health of a veteran.”