JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – While veterans in our region endured some of the longest wait times in the nation, Mountain Home VA Medical Center employees abused, disrespected and refused to help some patients and some of those people kept their jobs, according to federal disciplinary files.
Congressman Phil Roe (R,) District 1, called our findings “unacceptable” and said Congress needs to act.
“Accountability and transparency, the VA is lacking,” Rep. Roe said.
We’ve spent the last 11 months filing Freedom of Information Act requests, reviewing federal disciplinary records and demanding answers from the VA.
Records show from January 2014 through the end of 2015, Mountain Home disciplined roughly 150 employees, according to public records.
The VA fired almost half of those people and issued letters of disapproval, reprimands and suspensions to the rest. We don’t know the specifics of all of those cases, instead only very few of them, because the VA made it difficult to collect that information, but the documents we did obtain left Congressman Roe convinced the VA should have fired more people.
“They should work for somebody else. They don’t need to be serving veterans,” he said after hearing about three substantiated abuse cases from late last year within the nursing service. “That’s unacceptable and if you were working in the private sector, Nate, you’d be fired.”
“We don’t have water”
An internal investigation found one of the employees was rough with a patient while repositioning him. In addition, the VA found the employee let the man’s leg dangle over the side of his bed while repositioning him after the man told him it hurt.
“He feels that you push him in bed and his legs hurt really bad,” the report said. “You allowed his leg to continue to dangle over the bed for an extended period of time.”
Records show when the same veteran asked for water that nursing employee repeatedly refused to give it to him.
“We don’t have water…How many times do I have to tell you we don’t have water,” the employee said before taking away the man’s food tray, according to VA records.
The VA gave the employee a three-day suspension for his actions.
“He probably laid out in a ditch somewhere in Germany 70 years ago, freezing his back end off, no water, no food or anything else,” Roe said of the veteran “I want him to have it as quick as he opens his mouth. I want him to have water.”
“I deserve to be treated with respect.”
Another nursing employee received a two-day suspension after mocking a WWII veteran, letting his leg dangle over the side of his bed for an extended period of time while re-positioning him, refusing to cut up or open the patient’s food even though the man couldn’t use his left arm or hand and refusing to help the man get off the toilet, walking away and telling him “You can wait a while.”
“If that’s your attitude that you just read to me, you need to be gone,” Rep. Roe said.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?”
A third nursing service employee received a three-day suspension after taking a veteran’s food away before he was finished eating, according to VA records. When the patient threw a coffee cup in his direction, the employee slammed the door shut and asked “What in the hell is wrong with you? I didn’t know I was taking care of a two year old,” federal paperwork said.
Following the situation, the employee didn’t document the inappropriate behavior and then wasn’t truthful about the situation after a colleague reported it, records reveal.
Documents call all three employees’ actions first-time offenses.
2,500 phone calls and no answer
Over in the business office, records show an operator who scheduled appointments was “very rude and curt” to a patient who wanted to speak with his cancer doctor and then essentially hung up on him. A month later, records show that same employee didn’t answer a single call over a three-day period, even though the call center received more than, 2,500 calls during that time. Despite previous customer complaints and two previous written counseling actions, the VA only reprimanded him.
Two months later, documents suggest the VA investigated the same employee for again being rude and discourteous, this time to four other patients who called needing help. The employee hung up on all of those patients, according to records.
“The patient reported to your supervisor that you were very short, rude, and cut him off when he tried to explain what he needed stating words to the effect, ‘I know what you need,’ before abruptly hanging up on the patient without directing the patient’s call to the department he needed to speak to,” an internal report said of one patient’s experience.
He received a 14-day suspension this time.
Then Acting Director Dan Snyder said, “I do believe that there is potential for (blank’s) rehabilitation,” according to records.
However, Mountain Home fired the employee in November 2015 after he acted disrespectful to a supervisor and a coworker, according to VA documents.
41-day no show of police service dispatch employee
In another case, a police service dispatch employee failed to show up to work for 41 days.
Mountain Home suspended him without pay for two weeks despite the acting chief’s “little confidence in his ability for rehabilitation,” according to records.
Case: Doctor admits to Inappropriate touching of nurses
There’s also the case of a doctor who admitted to the inappropriate touching of women he worked alongside, kissing one on the top of her head and whispering in the ears and rubbing the shoulders of her and other nurses.
After initially suspending him, the VA chose to rescind a five-day suspension and instead gave him an official letter of disapproval, according to records.
That decision came after the physician, with the help of his union representative, signed a settlement agreement. The settlement prevented him from securing any new jobs at the VA for five years and removed all mentions of his suspension from his personnel file.
“I believe that we handle discipline appropriately.”
“Overall, do you think that you all have handled discipline appropriately?” we asked the then acting director.
“I believe that we handle discipline appropriately,” Snyder said.
Snyder says the VA relies on a progressive table of penalties for all cases that takes into account the seriousness of the act and the employee’s history.
“It’s not to punish people,” Snyder said. “It’s to change behavior. They don’t continue to work here if their behavior doesn’t change, so I think people should be glad to see that those things are looked after, and dealt with.”
Snyder says overall, the number of employees who misbehave is small, but he knows those rare cases include some egregious ones.
“I just have to say I’m very disappointed any time there’s a situation like that, especially where a patient’s abused in any way, disrespected,” he said. “Respect is part of our core values, as well as integrity.”
Snyder says Mountain Home’s goal is to treat veterans like heroes and give them the care they’ve earned.
“Anything short of that is a disappointment and as you’ve seen in the record, we deal with it harshly,” Snyder said.
“The three-day suspension some people may say, ‘That doesn’t sound harsh to me,'” we said.
“Someone that has earned a three-day suspension will likely earn a separation next time something happens,” Snyder said.
“I do think that some people may see this abuse case involving those three people and say, ‘Three days just doesn’t seem like a lot.’ What would you say to that?” we asked.
“I’m aware of the specifics of that case as well as you are and it is characterized as abuse, but it was some verbal abuse,” Snyder said.
Legislation to speed up VA disciplinary process now in hands of U.S. Senate
Rep. Roe understands Mountain Home is at the mercy of its progressive discipline policy. That’s part of the reason why he and the majority of U.S. representatives passed bi-partisan reform in September aimed at improving accountability and speeding up the disciplinary process. The legislation is now in the hands of the Senate.
“The VA needs to be more accountable and they need to be more responsive and some of it is not that their fault,” Rep. Roe said. “The VA administration needs a way to quickly get rid of those bad apples, but most of the people, certainly a vast majority, care deeply about veterans and take quality care of them.”
The legislation would shorten the firing/demotion/appeals process for rank-and-file VA employees from more than a year on average to a maximum of 77 days.
A third of the VA’s employees are veterans. Employees are also members of a union, which often gets involved in disciplinary cases on employees’ behalf. AFGE Local 1687 President Mary Sipple told us VA management is rarely held to the same standards as employees, often receiving counseling or relocation instead of facing discipline.
“The VA moves their problems around,” Sipple said. “They do not deal with them.”
The legislation aimed at improving accountability would open the door for more executive level punishment.
Allegations are “swiftly and thoroughly investigated”
As for those three abuse cases, Mountain Home’s current Acting Director Dr. David Hecht told us the cases involved three separate patients. However, he said he’s not aware of any injuries to the veterans in those cases and said the employees have not had any problems since.
Dr. Hecht said these allegations and all allegations like this are “swiftly and thoroughly investigated.” He added the three employees involved make up less than one tenth of one percent of all Mountain Home employees. All three cases were finalized in 2016, according to VA paperwork.