Whistle-blower protection investigators found no rampant retaliation at the Roseburg VA

April 15, 2019

An investigator from the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection concluded that there was not rampant retaliation against whistle-blowers at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The OAWP investigator had joined investigators from the Office of Medical Inspector who visited the Roseburg VA in October 2017. An executive summary of the OAWP investigator’s report, dated March 9, 2018, was first received by The News-Review last week, more than a year after it was written. It had all names redacted, including that of the investigator writing the report. However, in most cases it was clear what the missing names were.

The report suggested widespread complaints of retaliation and harassment are largely based on employees’ misconceptions about what those terms mean.

“In fact, many who spoke to us who received any type of correction or negative feedback or less than outstanding performance appraisal believed it was harassment,” the investigator wrote. “We heard reports of a coworker not having lunch with an employee as evidence of retaliation.”

While it didn’t find system-wide retaliation, the report doesn’t suggest the VA was without problems.

Still, its conclusions appear to be milder than those of investigators from the Office of Medical Inspector. Both offices are subdivisions of the national Department of Veterans Affairs.

The OMI never released to the public its report on its investigation. However, the OMI did release a two-page summary last year which specifically called for three top managers to be removed from supervisory positions. Those managers were subsequently identified as former surgery chief Dinesh Ranjan, former mental health chief Paul Beiring and former education chief William Stellar. All were removed from their positions. Then-director Doug Paxton also stepped down shortly after the investigation.

According to the OAWP investigator, the VA received complaints that Paxton cared more about the VA looking good on paper than he did about providing good care to veterans. The investigator said there was no evidence that the VA manipulated statistics used to determine whether it merited a one-star ranking, a five-star ranking or something in between. Rather, the investigator found Paxton’s goal was to improve the numbers by improving patient care.

However, the investigator did find evidence to back another complaint about Paxton, that he was rude to staff members and inclined to take the word of managers rather than listening directly to the employees under them.

The summary also discusses in some detail a conflict between Eugene surgeon Scott Russi and Ranjan. Russi was fired after working just a few months at the Roseburg VA’s Eugene clinic in 2017.

Russi is a retired Air Force colonel who was trauma medical director at Sacred Heart Medical Center before joining the VA. He said he had expressed concerns about Ranjan’s performance prior to his firing, and had also had a salary dispute after he did not receive the $385,000 salary he was initially promised.

On Friday, Russi told The News-Review the outcome of the OAWP investigation was predictable, because VA has an inability to present things in an honest manner.

“The statement that we don’t know what harassment is, is insulting,” he said.

Ranjan told the investigator that it was he who had found problems with the care Russi provided. Russi provided statements from surgeons outside of the Roseburg VA that supported his assertion that he followed the standard of care.

According to the OAWP investigator, the OMI investigators concurred with Ranjan’s assessment of Russi’s performance. But the investigator also said Russi’s firing was OK either way because while the salary dispute was ongoing Russi was a temporary part-time physician. That meant, according to the investigator, he didn’t have the rights of a regular employee. He could be fired for any reason and didn’t have the right to challenge it.

The investigator sidestepped retaliation complaints from other physicians involving Ranjan. In some cases, it said the cases had been settled. In others, it noted claims were being handled by other federal agencies.

Some federal agencies had already weighed in, and took a tougher line.

Ranjan had been accused of retaliating against other physicians for questioning his competence in performing colonoscopies. The Inspector General had found in 2017 that Ranjan had been using outdated colonoscopy practices that increased patient risk. The Office of Special Counsel had vindicated one of those surgeons, Philo Calhoun, saying he had been retaliated against as a whistle-blower. The OMI report had identified Ranjan as a part of an ongoing problem of senior leadership creating what it called an environment of intimidation. He was removed as chief of surgery and reassigned to a non-supervisory position in January 2018, and he retired in October.

Russi said because of that history, the OAWP shouldn’t have considered Ranjan an accurate source of information about other physicians on staff.

“The final result and the final finding is garbage because of the source of the information. The VA is going to be prejudicial toward receiving information from those people within leadership in the VA because they don’t want to find anything wrong,” Russi said.

The OAWP investigator did find, as did the OMI investigators, significant problems with management in the Acute Psychiatry Unit. It discussed reports that the former mental health nurse manager yelled at staff and told staff they would be reassigned to undesirable shifts or duties if they did not put up with her outbursts. Two staff members quit because of her behavior, the report said. It also said that Beiring, the mental health chief at the time, was told about the nurse manager’s misconduct but did not investigate it adequately.

In a particularly striking example, the report detailed an incident in which the mental health nurse manager, also referred to as the APU nurse manager, demanded that blood be drawn from a psychiatric patient who was refusing it, over the objection of the nurses.

“Essentially a group of nurses were opposed to drawing blood from a patient that was actively refusing consent. On the other side was the previously mentioned APU nurse manager ordering the nurses to draw the blood despite their professional objections,” the report said. Ultimately, it said, the nurses stood their ground and the nurse manager performed the blood draw herself. Afterward, the patient’s condition worsened.

Both the APU nurse manager and the mental health chief were removed from their posts following the investigations.

Another complaint in the investigation concerned managers’ apparent ignorance of the law requiring accommodation for disabled workers. A blind doctor was written up for her inability to complete physician notes on patient charts, a move that could ultimately have led to her being fired. Another case involved a social worker with a documented back condition who needed a larger vehicle in order to make visits to veterans in the community. Though the VA had plenty of vehicles that would have accommodated his problem, red tape unreasonably delayed his receiving a larger vehicle, the report found.

The report concluded management and human resources specialists seemed not to have basic knowledge of laws protecting disabled employees.

“The knowledge vacuum was profound, to include a lack of understanding of the basic tenets of the relevant statutes. It was not evident that managers understand they have an affirmative duty to effectively accommodate qualified employees with disabilities,” the investigator wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Roseburg VA, Traci Palmer, issued a written statement Friday which said that the current management of the VA has reviewed the full OMI and OAWP reports extensively.

“The report referenced was published more than a year ago and while the bulk of the allegations were not substantiated, where problems have been identified they have been addressed or are being addressed,” the statement said.

It also noted the VA has new leadership since Keith Allen was appointed director March 17 of this year.

“Since his arrival, Mr. Allen has made it clear his number one priority is to provide outstanding care to Veterans. Through transparency, open communication, and strategic thinking and planning, Mr. Allen is working to create a trusting environment for all stakeholders,” the statement said.