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BEFORE PHOENIX -- A Whistleblower's Saga of Corruption at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System

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Before the scandal unraveled at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Phoenix medical center, involving "secret waiting lists" and the death of forty patients waiting for care, it seemed impossible to garner a judicious response from VA officials. But, perhaps now under the intense scrutiny of network media and the Congress, VA will do a noble thing. Perhaps, the VA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) will go beyond its traditional perfunctory inquiry and properly investigate the myriad of early (2008) whistleblower claims of Oliver Mitchell, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a former VA employee of the Greater Los Angeles (GLA) Healthcare System.

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Long before the Phoenix uproar, Mitchell had warned VA officials of employee abuses, including the manipulation of Electronic Waiting Lists, to hide the GLA's raging ten-year backlog. Darin Selnick, the former special assistant to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, stated recently in the Los Angeles Daily news that "L.A. is one of the trouble spots in the VA system." Selnick quotes came from an article entitled : Veterans delays persist in Southern California. Notably, the GLA Healthcare system is the largest healthcare system within the Veterans Affairs. Yet, the "Phoenix Explosion" has dwarfed the long-standing and grave life altering misconduct that purportedly operates within the VA's GLA.

Based on the documents Mitchell submitted to the Coalition for Change, Inc. (C4C), a support advocacy group for African Americans facing reprisal in the federal workplace, it appears that both the VA's GLA and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) may have suppressed Mitchell's ominous claims of VA staffer's misconduct and kept Mitchell's foretelling concerns from reaching the Oval Office.

"I blew the whistle because the VA's manipulative scheduling practices aimed at hiding backlogs were killing vets," said Veteran Oliver Mitchell, who uncovered critical access to care issues in 2008. "Based on the OIG's and the OSC's lack of focus and priority to the matter, it seemed as if no one cared."

The abbreviated timeline of alleged events and narrative points were extracted from Mitchell's pending lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California (Mitchell v Shinseki, Case No: 2:2013cv06030).

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Timeline & Highlight of Key Events

February 2008: Mitchell began working as the "Lead Patient Services Assistant" for the GLA's Medical Center Radiology Department. GLA is the service area for roughly 1.4 million veterans. Mitchell's duties included assisting and directing in receptions, telephone triage, outpatient processing, admitting, travel eligibility, scheduling in-patients and out-patient services and filing.

November 2008: While attending a "System Redesign" meeting, Mitchell witnessed schemes to "play" the system to hide patient appointment wait times. During the meeting one VA official, struggling to meet performance measurement demands, reportedly stated:

  • "Our numbers for second and third quarter were the same as last year and in order to show favorable results we [need] to delete as many orders as possible."

  • "We are still playing catch up on the backlog". . . suggestion, start booking newer patients first"it isn't good medical care; but it plays the system. "After 30 days they drop off of the radar, probably. [audio available]

March 2009: Mitchell filed an OIG complaint for fraud, waste and abuse. He reported that interim Service Chief, Dr. Suzie El-Saden, had instructed him to destroy medical requests for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and computed tomography (CT) scans in an effort to address VA's ten-year patient appointment backlog. Mitchell's OIG complaint also alleged that VA officials prevented patient access, falsified documents, and cancelled patient MRI appointments without notifying the patient of the cancellation.

April 2009: Mitchell filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint reporting that he was suffering reprisal since making his March 2009 OIG disclosure.

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June 2009: Mitchell filed his FIRST complaint with the OSC. He gave the OSC documents and AUDIO-taped evidence supporting his claims that VA officials had purged records of an estimated 1,000 veterans and had engaged in scheduling tactics resulting in denying veterans timely access to care. An excerpt of Mitchell's OSC complaint reads:

"Dr. El-Saden said . . . that her job was on the line and this would be the death of her if we didn't delete and/or cancel any of the pending backlog."

*Despite the seriousness of Mitchell's claims, the OSC abandoned Mitchell's case. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell, who had previously achieved "Excellent" ratings, was detailed to a position with unclassified duties.

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Tanya Ward Jordan is President and Founder of the Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C). C4C is an proactive non-profit self-help organization comprised of former and present employees who have been injured or ill-treated due to workplace (more...)

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