- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A senior leader at the Veterans Affairs Medical System in Montana retaliated against a former top manager for filing a patient safety report over an operating room error in 2014, the former manager said in a whistleblower claim.

The allegations by former Associate Chief of Inpatient Care Dianne Scotten describe a “culture of fear” among workers in the VA Montana system in recent years as a result of internal strife and fear of retribution for going outside an employee’s chain of command.

The allegations heard Thursday by an administrative judge come amid an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by senior leadership and VA Montana Director John Ginnity’s announcement Wednesday that he plans to resign next month. It was not clear if the investigation is related to Scotten’s claims, and Ginnity did not give specific reasons for his departure.

VA officials said Thursday there was no retaliation against Scotten for making the patient safety report, and that the idea of a culture of fear within the VA is based on vague allegations, not concrete evidence.

“That’s the product of gossip, not the product of retaliation,” said VA attorney Melissa Lolotai.

A little more than a month after taking her job with the VA at Fort Harrison, Scotten reported to the VA’s Quality Management Program that there was a dispute over whether a surgical towel count had been completed during an operation.

Surgical towels are counted to ensure that none remain inside a patient during a surgical procedure. As a result of Scotten’s report, an investigation was conducted, leading to changes in operating room procedures and the use of a new type of surgical towel that can been seen by x-ray.

Almost immediately after making the report in April 2014, Associate Director for Patient Care Services Norlynn Nelson reprimanded Scotten, reassigned her duties, cut off communication with her, shut her out of meetings and prevented her from participating in corrective actions following another operating error, said Jill Gerdrum, Scotten’s attorney.

Scotten filed a grievance that Ginnity was late in responding to, and she left the VA in December to take a job with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“She felt she had to resign because she had no other choice,” Gerdrum said.

Scotten was underperforming in her job and had alienated the nurse managers under her by talking about them to other staff, Nelson testified. That upset an already tense situation among operating room staff members who had been in conflict with one another before Scotten’s arrival, Nelson said.

One nurse manager was upset that Scotten had gone outside their department with her report instead of speaking to the nurse manager first. But Nelson said she did not retaliate against Scotten for filing the report.

“I can see why she did. Good on her,” Nelson said.

Instead, Scotten was reassigned away from the operating room to give her a better chance to learn the VA system and excel in her job, Nelson said.

Scotten filed a claim with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears federal employee appeals for actions taken against them. She is asking Administrative Judge James Kasic to award monetary damages for violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Kasic heard testimony in the case on Thursday but did not make an immediate ruling.

The VA’s Office of Accountability Review is investigating allegations of senior leadership misconduct at the Fort Harrison medical center, according to a May 23 letter from VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. The investigation was prompted by allegations made by employees or former employees, and does not name a particular leader at the VA as its subject.

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