Local VA whistleblower Jared Kinnaman is demanding that U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert McDonald and Glen Grippen, interim director of the Phoenix VA Medical Center, resign from their leadership positions.
Kinnaman sent them personalized letters late last week, describing the Phoenix VA system as “a very volatile and grossly unsafe environment for Veteran patients to receive care as well as employees currently working in duress.” His letters allege that the two haven’t solved major problems they promised to fix, and that they’ve failed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
Kinnaman, a Marine Corps combat veteran, works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the VA and came forward as a whistleblower earlier this year because of what he saw as shortfalls in patient care.
“It pains me to sit back and watch my fellow brothers and sisters suffer under your leadership,” he writes. “I along with several other whistleblowers have brought to the attention of leadership on numerous occasions factual and undeniable evidence that your office has yet to resolve. Instead we have received countless forms of harassment, defamation, and threats while working and receiving care at this medical facility.”
He tells New Times that he wrote the letters because VA leaders talk a lot about changes, but make none. “They deflect questions” and have “no reason to tell the truth” because they’re never held accountable. “They’re not willing to say we fucked up, [even though] trust and being authentic really go a long way.”
“I’m dead serious; I want their resignations,” he adds.
Kinnaman is not the first employee to describe the Phoenix VA as “a toxic environment;” two other local whistleblowers, Brandon Coleman and Lisa Tandano have made similar allegations. All three tell New Times that they became targets after coming forward about flaws in the system, and Coleman and Tandano discovered their personal medical records were viewed by a co-worker who had no right to do so. (They discovered this by requesting what’s called a SPAR report, which allows patients to see who has accessed their medical records.)
In Kinnaman’s letters, he writes that “allowing coworkers and management to harass and intimidate whistleblowers is not only an immoral act, it is unethical and an abuse of power.” Such retaliatory incidences “continue unabated without intervention from you or your subordinates who are tasked to protect us…The VA cannot retaliate against an employee who exercises his or her rights under any Federal anti-discrimination or whistleblower protection laws.”
Adding to the fire, the Arizona Republic editorial board published an op-ed recently about the “chronic, vitriolic infighting” at the VA. “The worst part of the Phoenix VA mess is that VA leaders appear completely at a loss as to what to do about it,” the article says.
“We’ve had many leadership failures in the VA nationwide, and no one is doing anything about it,” Kinnaman tells New Times. “We need to start creating a new and healthy leadership that’s willing to do the right thing, be ethical, and have professional boundaries.”
In a statement to New Times about Kinnaman’s letters, Coleman writes “whistleblowers are the necessary catalyst for change [and] will be needed until such time the VA has developed its own moral compass and demonstrated a willingness to continuously improve in the spirit of its ICARE values”
The Phoenix VA Medical Center System serves about 80,000 veterans and has been mired in controversy since the Republic discovered staff was manipulating data to cover up long appointment wait-times last year. Former Director Sharon Helman was removed because of her role in the scandal, and Glen Grippen is now the third interim director of the Phoenix VA. He came out of retirement to assume the role in November 2014, and has worked in similar administrative roles at other VA centers in the past.
Robert McDonald replaced Eric Shinseki as National Secretary of the VA in July 2014, and came to the Phoenix VA this past March with President Barack Obama to announce a new advisory committee that will help oversee the process of repairing the VA and reaffirm his commitment to fixing large-scale problems.
According to David Jacobson, chief of social work at the Phoenix VA, leadership is working hard to fix problems. One common complaint is about the mishandling of suicidal veterans who present at the emergency room, and Jacobson said they are actively hiring more qualified employees and retraining some current staff to help cover the workload of the emergency room.
But Kinnaman does not think it’s enough. “It’s not just the Phoenix VA, it’s systemic,” he says. “The VA is not transparent,” and on both the local and national level, “they definitely beat around the bush, misdirect, and sometimes flat out lie.”
“Something has to change because we’re losing way too many people because of their bullshit,” he says.
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