House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees need to ask Shinseki the hard questions

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House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees need to ask Shinseki the hard questions

visn8logolgwh_120 Since posting our three part series on the Long and Winding Road called the VA Claims and Appeals system, we’ve been getting feedback from and about rank and file VA employees who have been retaliated against for trying to either fix the systemic problems at the VA, for their political views, or worse yet for challenging the arrogant anti-Vet atmosphere created by upper and middle management at the VA.

Several weeks ago I wrote about a Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Veterans Benefits Committee Report prepared by Jerry Klein, the Chair of the VVA Committee. That report was titled, "It’s Time To Clean House," is now available online.

My commentary on what Brother Klein had to say was called, "It’s Way Past Time to Effectively Clean House at VA," posted on 25 Feb 2009 generated quite a bit of debate with one apologist for the VA calling Brother Klein and by extension I scumbags. I dealt with the scumbag accusation in "The VA Needs a House Cleaning NOW!".

The debate frankly centered around the Stolen Valor view versus most other Vietnam Era Veterans views of the Department of Veterans Affairs, led to name calling of those who proposed General Shinseki do a thorough house cleaning of upper and middle management, and a vain attempt was made to focus criticism on VA rank and file when no such allegations of a broken VA were directed at all VA employees.      

The problems with the VA system are simply put not a Stolen Valor vs Home to War view of Vietnam Era Vets who will be debating our role in our war until the day we die. In fact, the only lingering side effect of the Stolen Valor view is the arrogant attitude by upper and middle management at the VA that has used the Rules of Engagement in Stolen Valor to terrorize all America’s Vets, selectively bar Veterans from the VA system, and even led to terrorizing of VA rank and file employees who blow the whistle on mismanagement at the VA (any VA) or try to fix or find solutions to the systemic problems.

This is why we at the Editorial Board are going to stay on message to destroy a habitual attitude that has spread not only throughout the VA management system, but most of our Old Guard VSO and to a degree even including VVA. The best place to begin cleaning house is to clean up the piss poor attitude of VA mangers. Frankly, most Vets will agree that the Obama administration and General Eric Shinseki are making strides in the right direction but not moving fast enough. When Secretary Shinseki bows to the advice and guidance of only the leaders of the Old Guard VSOs, we end up with the same attitude that was promoted by Congressman Steve Buyer when he was Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He and his "stolen valor" attitude was no friend of America’s Veterans, and yet Old Guard Vets in Indiana kept sending him back to Congress to further destroy the VA and spread an anti-Veteran attitude.

We are going to expose just how this piss poor attitude impacts not only Veterans but the rank and file of VA employees who question the arrogance or how Vets are mistreated. However, we are not going to be politically correct about it, because the Stolen Valor attitude and political tactics the attitude involves gave rise to the Swift boat Veterans for Bush, the derogative political terminology "swiftie," or "swift boating" to mean dirty politics, and that attitude brought down two Presidential candidates a Democrat (Kerry) in 2004, and a Republican (McCain) in 2008. To those who say the stolen valor attitude should not be taken serious or is not a significant Carl Rove political tactic, we say that Senators McCain and Kerry did not take that attitude or political tactic serous and look what it cost them.

To General Shinseki we say that the evidence is compiling that the Secretary and Obama administration must do what VVA called for with expediency, because time is not on the side of most of America’s Veterans. We will be posting links to reliable sources that affirm just how much of a house cleaning the VA is in need of NOW!

America’s Veterans quite possibly can be patient with Secretary Shinseki and his boss the President for about a year, but how many American Veterans will die in that year waiting for their VA Claim to be resolved or for the VA Appeal process to wait them out?

Lastly, keep in mind that this latest expose on Bay Pines in Florida is but a never ending horror story for Veterans of all wars and Eras.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
Member, Editorial Board of Directors
VT News Network

Bay Pines faces job bias trial
By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
Published Sunday, June 14, 2009

317_ivTAMPA – This is not the portrait of life inside the nation’s fourth-busiest veterans hospital that outsiders ever see. A medical chief caught on videotape talking about his intent to drive out older doctors. Workers pressured to collect dirt on colleagues. Patient records confiscated like contraband, a doctor taking photos of a colleague’s filing cabinets with a disposable camera. A physician called a "terrorist" by his boss.

These are allegations in court papers that might be aired at a federal civil trial scheduled to open yesterday (June 14th) that will cast another unflattering spotlight on work life at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.

Four Bay Pines employees, including three doctors, accuse hospital leadership of a broad pattern of retaliation against employees who file employment discrimination claims. The charges are denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA and an attorney for plaintiffs, Joe Magri, declined to comment.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa is expected to last up to three weeks. More than 100 current and former Bay Pines employees could testify, including the hospital’s director, Wallace Hopkins, and its medical chief of staff, Dr. George Van Buskirk. The trial’s outcome is expected to be closely watched by veterans’ advocates, who sometimes accuse the VA of stomping out dissent in its ranks.

The VA responds to criticism by "circling the wagons," said Paul Sullivan, a former VA employee and executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veteran’s advocacy group unconnected to the trial. "The VA needs to be more transparent. If they make mistakes, admit them and move forward with a solution."

At the heart of the case is VA Hospital Director Hopkins’ desire to cut down on the number of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints that employees file for grievances about workplace discrimination [that he must report to Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki – emphasis added by Major Hanafin].

All four plaintiffs – [VA] physicians Claudia Cote, 48, Diane Gowski, 48, Sally Zachariah, 56, and former administrative officer Roxanne Lainhart, 38 – say Bay Pines administrators denied them bonuses, promotions, desired assignments and otherwise made their lives miserable after they filed EEO complaints, mostly about gender.

At times, they said, hospital administrators pressured underlings to collect dirt on them to provide grist for disciplinary action. The plaintiffs, who still work at Bay Pines but believe they could soon be fired, said VA Hospital Director Hopkins and Van Buskirk wanted to stop even legitimate complaints by making an example of those who filed them, VA medical chief of staff, Dr. George Van Buskirk "has stated publicly that he considers EEO activity to be like an illness, that is like a plague … affecting federal institutions," Cote said in pretrial testimony. "And the [VA] administration has no tolerance for that."

[Major Hanafin’s comment: contact your member of Congress, VSO leadership, and the Office of Secretary Shinseki and demand that these VA physicians not be terminated until Secretary Shinseki himself has reviewed their cases, but certainly before their EEO complaints have run their course including appeal to the Office of the Special Council. If General Shinseki cannot find or make the time to clean house at VA upper and middle management, the Secretary should at least protect the jobs of rank and file VA employees who expose corruption, sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.]

Zachariah said one way Bay Pines punished her was by confiscating records of her treatment of patients with severe migraines because, administrators said, she violated policy by keeping hard copies in her office Zachariah, trying to prove other doctors had done the same without being disciplined, took a disposable camera to work to take photos of another physician’s file cabinet. When the hospital’s chief of medicine found out, he took the camera away from her, Zachariah told lawyers.

The four plaintiffs describe a climate of fear among Bay Pines’ 3,330 workers, who they say are afraid to complain about anything out of fear of being fired. [Frankly, we on the VT Editorial Board have received sufficient feedback and data to confirm that this is not an isolated case at one VA Hospital or Regional office but a habitual attitude and working environment of fear of retaliation spread across the VA Medical system from Coast to Coast. This is more of a sense of urgency that Secretary Shinseki must heed VVA’s advice and clean house at VA upper and middle management throughout the system. The quicker Secretary Shinseki makes this a priority, and finds qualified and ethical replacements the better not only for the VA rank and file but most important for America’s Veterans during wartime.

Van Buskirk, who was hired as chief of staff five years ago, said in pretrial testimony that Bay Pines was rife with unhappiness when he took over. He said it was hard for the hospital to recruit doctors because of the "hostile environment." Employees, he said, leaked damaging stories to the news media. Prospective employees would receive anonymous packages with damaging information about the hospital, he added.

"At that point, this hospital was in total chaos," he said.

[Another hard question that Senators and Congress critters on the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committee should be asking and are not, how come the VA Secretary and Congress oversight committee for the VA are not being told any VA hospital in total chaos, but a senior Medical official of the VA is beyond us at VT].

In 2003, the hospital’s former chief of medicine was seen on a videotape giving a talk and mentioning how he was going to rid the hospital of older doctors, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs. They say the hospital then did just that.

The same chief of medicine, the plaintiffs say, once called a doctor – not one of the plaintiffs – a "terrorist" and "al-Qaida." [Major Hanafin’s comment: it seems that the Stolen Valor attitude and Swift boating or swifites are not limited to political campaigns but also are part of the systemic management problems within Secretary Shinseki’s and President Obama’s VA]

Van Buskirk said Bay Pines formerly had a policy of trying to settle almost every EEO complaint, frivolous or not.

"And I think it became clear to me that that was part of the problem when we came here," said Van Buskirk, who denied ever retaliating against anyone because of an EEO complaint.

Hopkins, who says he does not tolerate discrimination, said in pretrial testimony that the hospital has seen a 50 percent reduction in EEO complaints in recent years. In 2008, 22 EEO complaints were filed at Bay Pines.

Bay Pines lawyers said that the plaintiffs were not targeted and that any actions against them were for legitimate work-related problems.

"This case is really about their fundamental disagreement with the way Bay Pines VA is being managed," said a defense motion. "Such disagreements about business judgments, especially in the context of how medical care is managed and delivered, are not to be second-guessed under the auspices of the federal discrimination laws."

Posted by: Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
GS-13-Retired
VT News Network
Editorial Board

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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner. My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me. Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000. I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house. I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.