A former U.S. Marine who exposed substandard mental health care at the troubled Phoenix VA hospital two years ago says that veterans' health care has continued to deteriorate at the facility despite legislative efforts and leadership changes.
Brandon Coleman, an employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs for more than nine years, spoke to the Washington Free Beacon following new revelations about shortfalls at the Carl T. Hayden VA hospital in Phoenix.
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"I think that the Phoenix VA is a cesspool," Brandon Coleman told the Free Beacon in an October interview. "I think it is the worst example of VA health care in the United States as we know it. There are some other bad examples, but Phoenix is known as ground zero."
Coleman was working as an addiction therapist at the Phoenix VA when he reported in December 2014 that potentially suicidal veterans were being allowed to walk out of an emergency department without receiving treatment. Coleman had lost six veteran patients to suicide since starting at the hospital nearly three years earlier.
Coleman came forward months after a former VA doctor disclosed that veterans had died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix hospital. The doctor revealed that VA employees were keeping secret waiting lists, sparking national controversy that led to legislative reform and a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald.
But appointment delays have persisted in Phoenix despite intense public scrutiny and efforts to hold employees accountable for misconduct and expand veterans' health care choices. An inspector general report published in October confirmed a whistleblowers' allegation that employees were inappropriately canceling appointments. The report found that patients died while waiting for care.
"[Deputy VA Secretary] Sloan Gibson and Bob McDonald continue to blame the old regime and that they're moving things in the right direction, but this IG report is under their watch," Coleman said. "This happened in 2015. This is all them and it shows that the problems continued to get worse and that not enough is being done to properly fix it."
The VA's problems have not been limited to Phoenix, though the hospital has served as a flashpoint in the years-long debate over the veterans' health care system. A comprehensive assessment issued last year concluded that the VA hospital network faces crises in leadership and culture, as well as other systemic problems that warrant "system-wide reworking."
Coleman said that a change in top-level leadership will not fix the agency's problems if VA bosses do not punish bad employees and move to correct problems reported by whistleblowers who have their "boots on the ground" at individual facilities.
"I think that the VA is so corroded and corrupt at this point it doesn't matter who the figurehead is," Coleman said. "I think McDonald came in with good intentions and was overwhelmed."
Coleman faulted the VA for not protecting whistleblowers, himself included. Coleman claimed that a leader at the Phoenix VA retaliated against him after he discussed his complaint in a TV interview. An internal probe by the Office of Accountability Review completed in January 2015 and reported by the Daily Caller found evidence that an acting director in the Phoenix system retaliated against Coleman. The official was never punished.
Coleman said that middle managers have continued to "blackball" whistleblowers who bring forth evidence of mismanagement or poor care, including the anonymous individual who made substantiated allegations about the Phoenix facility.
"I know the whistleblower that brought forth those allegations that were confirmed by the IG and I will say that my hat is off to that whistleblower for being brave enough to expose them yet again," Coleman said.
"Even if you don't give your name, they know who it is," Coleman said when asked whether he knew of any retaliation against the whistleblower. "They know exactly who it is. And so, that person has already been blackballed and they are doing everything they can to try to do damage control and to make that person look bad."
The VA did not respond to a request for comment.
Coleman was cleared of wrongdoing in February 2015, but was placed on paid administrative leave for more than 18 months. The VA finally reached a settlement with him in May of this year, allowing Coleman to resume work as an addiction therapist at the Anthem VA, which operates under the agency's northern Arizona leadership.
Coleman has joined other whistleblowers in testifying before congressional committees about problems at the VA.
He is a proponent of the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016, which would make it easier for the VA to fire or demote employees and implement other reform measures, including rules to protect whistleblowers, shorten veterans' appeals for disability benefits, and limit bonuses awarded to VA's top executives.
The legislation, which the Obama administration has criticized but not threatened to veto, passed the House with bipartisan support in September. The bill is one of several legislative efforts pursued by lawmakers because sweeping reform following the wait list scandal has fallen short of resolving systemic problems in the VA's network of hospitals.
Coleman, like some lawmakers, believes that veterans should be able to choose where they seek care, criticizing as insufficient the Choice Program established in 2014. That program allows veterans who have waited more than 30 days for appointments or live far from VA hospitals to seek care at non-VA facilities.
"As a disabled Marine Corps veteran, I earned the right to go where I want to go. When I needed my GI Bill, I was allowed to pick what college I wanted to go to, so why can't I pick what medical provider is giving the best medical care?" Coleman said.
At the same time, Coleman criticized Democrats for accusing Republicans of trying to "privatize" the VA, an attack line advanced by Hillary Clinton when she unveiled her plan to fix the VA last November.
"You'll hear the fight between the left and the right, you'll hear the left saying that the right is trying to privatize the VA. I don't think that's true. I don't want to privatize the VA. I think the VA does great work. It's one of the leading researchers and training organizations in the world," Coleman told the Free Beacon. "There's a need for the VA. There's a camaraderie at the VA."
"However, where they miss the boat is in primary care," Coleman continued. "If a veteran has the sniffles, why can't that veteran just go to his local Walgreens clinic instead of having to take an appointment or come to the ER and wait 12 to 18 hours to take an appointment away from one of these service-connected veterans?"