A highly-rated pain management specialist at a Southeastern Missouri VA, Dr. Klein, is supposed to work with veterans, but instead, he sits in his small office all day and does nothing. Klein describes his current work situation as “solitary confinement” due to whistleblower retaliation.
He’s a double-board certified physician and Yale University fellow but he said the Department of Veterans Affairs took away his patients and privileges almost a year ago after he blew the whistle on secret wait lists and wait time manipulation at the VA. Also, he had a suspicion some veterans were re-selling their prescriptions on the black market.
He went to his superiors but when they did nothing, he went to the inspector general. When the VA found out that he made these disclosures, they began retaliating against him. He was initially placed on administrative leave. The Missouri VA he worked for closed his pain management clinic and tried to terminate him. According to court documents, the VA tried to fire Klein “not based on substandard care or lack of clinical competence but for consistent acceleration of trivial matters through his chain of command”.
Klein said, “I do not consider secret wait lists and manipulations of wait times to be trivial matters.”
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, made it clear that because the doctor was a whistleblower, he couldn’t be fired. The doctor says that his retaliation continues and believes his duties were stripped to silence him. This kind of behavior may set a bad precedent because other whistleblowers are going to think the same and may not want to risk their career or livelihood.
Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-Wisc) chose to step in and write a letter to the VA Secretary and request the VA stop all retaliatory action against Dr. Klein. “I’m concerned about a doctor who could be utilizing his skills to help veterans but who is not able to utilize those skills,” he said.
Unfortunately, Klein isn’t’ the one to experience this. A VA employee, Smothers served in the Colorado Army National Guard and Reserves from 1999-2007, joined the Denver VA. He wanted to help veterans engage with their own healthcare and assisted the PTSD clinical team. He came from a family of veterans who valued service to others and he wanted to dedicate his life to helping veterans who may be struggling.
Smothers worked as a peer support specialist when he alleged he found more than 3,500 veterans on what he believed to be secret wait lists at the Denver VA facilities. “It became clear to me very quickly that many of the veterans that were on the PTSD clinical teams’ wait list had been waiting for care for 3, 4, 5, 6 months,” he said.
After he reported his allegations to the inspector general, he said his superiors forced him to sit in his office without any work assignments or authority to see patients. Human resources also tried to get him to sign a piece of paper that said he “compromised the integrity of the healthcare system” and to destroy the wait lists. Smothers quit his job at the VA and he said he wished he could do more to change the system from within because he didn’t think enough was being done.
There are 100 years of laws against retaliating against whistleblowers and Johnson is trying to get a whistleblower protection bill to help VA employees.