POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - A doctor at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center who called himself a whistleblower has been fired.
The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that Dr. Dale Klein was terminated.
Klein claimed that veterans were not getting the care they deserved at the VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff. He said when he spoke up, he was retaliated against.
His attorney, Natalie Khawam, said he was fired on Tuesday, Aug. 22, and escorted out of the facility by two police officers.
In a letter months ago from Klein's attorney to the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center director, she said: "Our client is reporting to work - ready, willing and able to regain his credentialing, skills, training, experiences and resolve this matter."
He was told to start seeing patients again but did not because Klein said he was not up to date on training and didn't see improvements being made at the facility. Klein's legal representatives said he saw two patients this summer.
According to Khawam, a stay had been enacted by a protection board to protect Dr. Klein while the Office of the Special Counsel investigated the matter. The stay was exhausted on Aug. 11.
The VA released a statement to Heartland News on Friday, Aug. 25. It said, "Dr. Klein's removal was in no way related to his protected activity. VA is dedicated to ensuring Veterans get the best possible care. We encourage employees to identify anything that may impede VA's mission and we take seriously any efforts to retaliate against those individuals. Dr. Klein was employed as a physician at the Poplar Bluff VA Medical Center, and like all of our employees at VA, we expected him to do his job and, in his case, see patients. He was removed for failure to follow orders related to his duties."
Khawam said she will continue to represent Dr. Klein as they plan to continue pursuing the matter as they feel he was treated unfairly for whistleblowing.
Claims of retaliation
Dr. Klein claimed he is being punished for speaking up about what he said is happening in the VA system.
"Retaliation is alive and well in the VA system," said Dr. Dale Klein.
Dr. Klein claimed veterans aren't getting the care they deserve at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff.
He voiced his concerns and said he was banished to an empty room all while still collecting his salary.
"This is the time, this is a heart-stopping moment for the VA, the transformation can start in Poplar Bluff, Missouri," said Dr. Klein.
At this point, Klein doesn't have much to lose.
He wants everyone to hear his story.
"Essentially I was ordered to lower my standard of care, in fact, lower it to substandard care, as a physician that's appalling to me," said Dr. Klein.
In May of 2015, Doctor Klein was hired at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center to start a pain management clinic.
"But, shortly after I started working here it became obvious to me that I was not getting the support I needed from my chain of command," said Klein.
One of his big complaints is what he calls the manipulation of wait times.
"After I see a patient, I put together a comprehensive rehab program which may include referral to a physical therapist," said Dr. Klein.
"So, my chain of command told me, excuse me...ordered me not to make any of these recommendations because the veterans were already waiting too long to have these referrals made."
He also brought to his superiors his concerns about secret wait lists and his suspicions that patients were re-selling prescriptions on the black market.
"They were trying to silence me so they put me on administrative leave with pay and closed the pain clinic."
During an interview in early 2017, Klein said he had not seen a patient for about a year.
"In my opinion, by losing the pain management clinic at the Poplar Bluff VA, that shows wanton disregard for the veterans healthcare," said Dr. Klein. "The veterans are then forced to travel a long way to get the care I could provide in Poplar Bluff."
Instead, Klein said he sat in a small room at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center and did nothing all day, every day while collecting a $250,000 a year salary on the taxpayer's dime.
"Having a physician who is double boarded be prevented from practicing medicine and helping to treat veterans while keeping him on payroll is a misuse of public funds," said Natalie Khawam, Dr. Klein's attorney.
Khawam works for the Whistleblower Law Firm in Tampa, Florida.
She said her client is suffering for trying to do the right thing.
"Withholding someone from being able to practice their craft while keeping them on payroll and having them stare at walls is inhumane and actually against the law," said Khawam.
The VA spokesperson issued the following statement:
KFVS submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the VA asking for complaints filed against the hospital and/or Dr. Klein since 2015.
It took more than two months to get that information, and when it arrived everything was redacted. There wasn't any information in the 60 pages they sent.
Senators send letter to Department of VA secretary
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri joined U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in calling on Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to fully investigate claims of improper care at the John J. Pershing Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Poplar Bluff.
"Our veterans have earned the best care possible, so when whistleblowers expose issues with veterans' medical treatment they need to be addressed immediately," said Senator McCaskill in a statement. "I'm deeply concerned by any allegations that VA is not promptly investigating and resolving these issues."
The letter from McCaskill and Johnson asked Secretary Shulkin to direct all VA employees to cease any retaliation against Dr. Klein.
"There is no excuse for retaliation against VA whistleblowers like Dr. Klein," said Senator Ron Johnson. "The President's recent executive order makes that abundantly clear. The VA should fully comply with the Committee's request and stop the retaliation against Dr. Klein, who was only trying to expose substandard patient care."
The Senators have asked for answers to questions regarding this case, and requests those answers as soon as possible, but no later than 5 p.m. on May 17, 2017.
President Trump signed an executive order in April 2017 to create a new whistleblower protection office at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced that he has established the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in the Department, and that Peter O'Rourke will serve as Senior Advisor and Executive Director of the Office, reporting directly to the Secretary.
As detailed in the Executive Order, the Executive Director will:
- Advise and assist the Secretary in using, as appropriate, all available authorities to discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out his or her duties on behalf of Veterans.
- Advise and assist the Secretary in recruiting, rewarding, and retaining high-performing employees.
- Identify statutory barriers to the Secretary’s authority to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety, or well-being of a Veteran and to recruit, reward, or retain high-performing employee and report such barriers to the Secretary for consideration as to the need for legislative changes.
- Work closely with relevant VA components to ensure swift and effective resolution of Veterans’ complaints of wrongdoing at VA.
- Work closely with relevant VA components to ensure adequate investigation and correction of wrongdoing throughout the VA, and protect employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing from retaliation.
- Consider redundancies and the possibility of combining the office with existing VA components to improve the VA’s efficiency, effectiveness, or accountability.
"With a creation of this office, we are sending a strong message, those who fail our veterans will, for the first time, be held accountable," said President Trump.
Dr. Klein hoped his case leads to change.
"So I have no regrets, that I have put not only my job in jeopardy, but also my career in jeopardy," said Dr. Klein.
Rally held in Poplar Bluff
Veterans gathered in Poplar Bluff around noon on Friday, May 12 to support Veterans Affairs whistleblowers.
The rally was on the same day that Dr. Klein was set to be terminated from his position at the hospital, according to Dr. Klein's attorney.
According to Natalie Khawam, the Merit Systems Protection Board issued a stay order for Dr. Klein, ceasing the VA from terminating him.
"Since there needs to be a quorum by the MSPB Court to issue an extension of an order, the order can't be extended since there are vacancies in the MSPB Court that haven't been filled, leaving us with no ability to get an extension of the stay order," said Khawam.
Veterans and other supporters gathered in the parking lot of a strip mall across the street from the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center.
They gathered at noon and emphasized that the demonstration would follow all laws, and would not disrupt any VA activities or anyone coming to or leaving the hospital.