Brian Turner, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who reported fraudulent scheduling practices in Austin and San Antonio, said Friday that VA officials attempted to stop him from speaking publicly, pinned blame on low-level scheduling clerks and conspired to cover up his allegations by falsely telling the media he had recanted.
Turner’s claims, first reported by the American-Statesman on May 6, quickly led to calls for investigations and were a key part of a wave of allegations that ultimately led to Friday’s resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Yet on a day when President Barack Obama called for a change in the culture within the VA, Turner detailed how San Antonio VA officials tried to discredit his allegations and intimidate him into silence.
According to a letter obtained exclusively by the American-Statesman, sent Friday by Turner’s attorney Eric Pines to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the problems began soon after he began reporting scheduling manipulation to his superiors in late April.
According to Turner, who works at San Antonio’s North Central Federal Clinic, scheduling clerks in Austin, San Antonio and Waco were regularly told to enter false scheduling information to make it appear that wait times for appointments were far shorter than they really were. In one scheme, he said, schedulers were told to “zero out” wait times by using the actual appointment date instead of the date requested by veterans or doctors.
On April 25, Turner says he was ordered by Marie Weldon, director of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, through an intermediary to stop emailing or asking about VA scheduling practices.
On May 2, Turner says that Zachary Selover, chief of medical administrative service for the San Antonio VA, convened an unannounced meeting of scheduling clerks. “Mr. Selover forcefully placed pressure on the clerks to take responsibility for the VA’s improper scheduling practices, while claiming that he and other supervisors were unaware of the fraudulent practices,” the letter reads. When challenged by Turner, “Selover began yelling and screaming at Mr. Turner, causing him to incur an anxiety attack.”
In Austin, VA officials have acknowledged that schedulers improperly failed to use an electronic wait list tool that could reveal lengthy wait times, but they have called it a “training issue” that top administrators were unaware of.
Yet the VA’s inspector general reported this week that, far from being a scheme hatched by low-level scheduling clerks, data manipulation occurs systemically throughout the VA and is linked to performance measures that give bonuses to high-ranking officials whose facilities have short wait times.
“It is readily apparent that many VA Directors and supervisors have traded the health and safety of America’s Veterans for money and performance awards,” Pines’ letter reads. “It is now clear that any employee, like my client, who opposes them will be retaliated against, silenced and punished.”
In response to questions Friday, the San Antonio VA officials said in a statement: “We’re not aware of any retaliation. We investigated his allegations listed below and they could not be substantiated.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said Friday he called for a House Veterans Affairs Committee investigation into Turner’s claims of retaliation.
“Any attempt to chill whistleblowers is outrageous. VA management should focus on improvement, not harassment,” Doggett said in a statement. “All those with information should be encouraged to come forward. … I will be working to see that each is protected and that action is taken against anyone engaged in retaliation.”
Turner said that the day after he went public with his claims in the American-Statesman, acting chief of psychology Miguel Ybarra came into his office with four copies of the VA’s strict rules about speaking to the media and asked Turner to sign them. Turner refused. “Mr. Turner took Mr. Ybarra’s actions as a threat to stop speaking out against the VA,” the letter reads.
Two days later, VA officials told the San Antonio Express-News that Turner had retracted his claims, something Turner denies. Pines writes that the comment was made “to cover up South Texas VA’s fraudulent scheduling practices now that he has brought them to light in an attempt to place my client’s integrity in question. … Additionally, my client and I see these statements as libelous, and we will be demanding a retraction in the near future. We will also pursue whatever legal action is necessary to clear the record.”
When news broke that Veterans Administration clinics in Arizona were manipulating wait list data, American-Statesman investigative reporter Jeremy Schwartz dug into the operations of VA clinics in Central Texas. He was the first to uncover similar problems in Austin and San Antonio and has continued to follow the story.