A year after the scandal over phony wait times at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital exposed widespread problems in the agency nationwide, employees say troubles at the Arizona facility are still rampant, including whistleblower retaliation, neglect of suicidal veterans and suspected fraud in overtime pay.
The top financial officer at the Phoenix VA has filed a lawsuit claiming that other administrators there orchestrated an unlawful search of her office and accused her of sexual misconduct after she blew the whistle about mismanagement. She said the stressful work atmosphere led her to overdose on painkillers.
Internal VA emails obtained by The Washington Times indicate that top administrators in Phoenix were aware of potential fraud involving exorbitant overtime pay for a 75-year-old suicide prevention counselor who was billing the agency for as much as 55 hours of overtime per pay period, sometimes while he was supposedly working at separate locations at the same time. The questions of suspected fraud and unsafe patient care have attracted the attention of investigators on the staff of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
The unresolved problems in Phoenix may have been summed up this month when Thomas Murphy, a veteran, killed himself May 10 in the parking lot of the Phoenix VA office. He had been seeking treatment for five months for pain in his right shoulder, but he left behind a one-page note saying the agency didn’t help him.
“To date, I have heard nothing from the VA about this, except a letter saying their x-rays showed nothing,” Mr. Murphy wrote. “Thanks for nothing, VA.”
The fresh doubts about veterans’ care in Phoenix emerged as congressional Republicans renewed their criticism Thursday of President Obama and new VA Secretary Robert McDonald for failing to improve benefits for veterans nationwide.
“It has been a year since President Obama accepted the resignation of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with the promise to ‘do right by our veterans across the board, as long as it takes.’ Today, the president is failing by his own measure,” said the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Mr. Obama visited the Phoenix VA facility in March to meet with employees and proclaimed at the time that his new team was making progress.
“This discussion allowed us to home in on some problems that continue to crop up and, as a consequence, will allow us to fix them,” Mr. Obama said.
About a month later, Tonja Laney filed her lawsuit in federal court. Ms. Laney, the chief financial officer at the Phoenix VA medical center, said rival administrators subjected her to sexual accusations, a trumped-up police investigation and racial smears for two years.
In an interview, Ms. Laney said the pattern of harassment and internal conflicts resulted at least in part because she came forward as a whistleblower about mismanagement at the VA facility.
“We’ve got to stand up and tell the truth before we can talk about widespread VA reform,” she said, adding that superiors in Phoenix and in Washington ignored her complaints. “I addressed all of my concerns through my chain of command. The agency has left me with no other alternative but to tell my story to the press.”
An Air Force veteran who has been under treatment for depression, Ms. Laney transferred from the VA office in Amarillo, Texas, to Phoenix in 2012. She said the toxic culture of animosity and corruption in the Phoenix VA hospital led her to overdose on OxyContin.
“It can be very difficult to function in hostility 40-plus hours a week,” she said. She receives treatment privately outside the VA system, she said, “because I’ve had issues with folks inappropriately accessing my medical records since I’ve been here in Phoenix.”
During her tenure in Phoenix, Ms. Laney, who has biracial children, has been subjected to smears from other administrators accusing her of being a “mud shark,” a derogatory term for white women who sleep with black men. She also was accused of having sex with two employees in her office but was exonerated by internal investigations.
The Arizona Republic newspaper reported that as chief of health administrative services, Brad Curry received a written admonition over the slanderous episode, was told to apologize and had to take a leadership course. He was placed on paid suspension during the patient-care scandal last year.
After Ms. Laney reported to the VA inspector general about “timekeeping problems”and possible misuse of student loans in a department of the Phoenix VA, her office was searched by an agency police officer in what she called a bogus, retaliatory effort to find incriminating evidence against her. The officer even sealed off her office with police evidence tape.
“It instills fear. My staff were terrified the day they walked me out of here,” Ms. Laney said. “The problem we’re facing as an agency is, what Mr. McDonald tells the press — that he loves and adores whistleblowers — is crap. They’ve not asked us what happened here, how we got into this crisis. So there’s no way lessons can be learned from this crisis. Until we become transparent and honest and accountable, there’s no way to move forward.”
A spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA medical center, Jean Schaefer, said she could not comment on pending litigation. She said the administration in Phoenix is “working very hard” to improve services at the facility.
“We are working every day to improve the quality and access of care for our veterans,” she said.
Meanwhile, Senate investigators are looking into the suspected fraudulent payment of overtime at the Phoenix facility in what one employee said could be an effort to conceal how thinly stretched the hospital is with staff to screen and treat suicidal veterans.
An internal email chain among administrators at the Phoenix VA medical center, obtained by The Washington Times, shows questions being raised this year about high amounts of overtime being paid to a social worker who sometimes appeared to be racking up hours at two locations about 10 miles apart simultaneously. The employee put in for 110 hours of overtime in a single pay period, including a 24-hour period in which he had only 2 hours off.
One VA official in the email chain said that the employee “was the only one that volunteered to fill the [emergency department] void on weekends,” in an apparent attempt to defend the overtime. Another administrator wrote, “A two hour break in a 24 hour period in a patient care position isn’t safe.”
A third official warned, “We need to ensure our employees are at their locations the time we pay them and they are alert and effective. The perception on this is extremely suspect with the time keepers and even I am questioning this.”
Emails show that the issue was brought to the attention of Glen Grippen, director of the VA hospital, but it is not clear what action, if any, was taken.
The hospital spokeswoman said their payroll records show the employee was paid for 11 hours of overtime in the pay period in question.
Brandon Coleman, a VA employee who works on suicide prevention but was placed on leave in January after becoming a whistleblower, said veterans in crisis with depression and other emotional problems are not adequately helped in Phoenix.
“Enough is not being done to help our most at-risk veterans,” Mr. Coleman said. “I believe the act of a veteran taking the extra time to complete suicide on VA property is a hugely symbolic act that shows a deep-rooted systemic problem with trying to treat our most at-risk veterans.”
Mr. Boehner’s office said the administration hasn’t lived up to Mr. Obama’s promises to correct problems in the VA, saying that only a one VA manager has been fired for the wait-time scandal in Phoenix last year, that the number of medical appointments taking longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled despite an additional $16.3 billion spent on the problem, and that the backlog of claims for veterans benefits include 188,000 petitions that have been waiting more than 125 days for action.