SPOKANE, Wash – A group of employees from the Spokane VA Medical Center are speaking out to KHQ, voicing their concerns over what they call "they very integrity" of the hospital.
"This is not how you do business, it's not a way you're going to be able to be successful, and more importantly, it's not how you treat your veterans," one employee who asked to remain anonymous told KHQ's Kelsey Watts.
The group of employees asked to hide their identities, saying they're afraid of retribution for speaking out.
Among their primary concerns:
-Service-related health care claims that the VA should pay for are instead being billed to the veterans' private insurance, which is against the law and affects their family coverage and deductibles
-They say there is an environment in the medical department of "fear, retribution and punishment"
-A lack of participation in major veterans events, such as the Armed Forces Torchlight Parade in Spokane this year
-A new series of locks in the director's suite they say are limiting access to veterans and give the impression there's something to hide
"I've never seen it this closed down, this difficult to interact with management," another employee reported. "We've never had the complaints from patients."
"I was having a hard time sleeping at night," a third employee told KHQ. "I was having nightmares, I was scared to go back to work because I was afraid of what they were going to come up with."
A medical worker said a nurse was moved to the laundry department after speaking out about sexual harassment, and says she has also been a target of discrimination.
The group has so many concerns, about two dozen of them reached out to Senator Patty Murray's office, hoping to find some resolution.
"The things we were able to share were not new, they had already heard many of the stories they got from us, and we were only validating information they had already received through other routes," a VA employee said.
KHQ's Kelsey Watts reached out to the director of the Spokane VA, Linda Reynolds, who said, "These are things I don't take lightly."
While she declined an on-camera interview, saying she didn't feel it was appropriate, and citing personnel privacy issues, she did speak over the phone about these concerns.
In regards to service-related health care claims being billed to private insurance companies, Reynolds said each claim is evaluated on a number of points, including service connections, any change in financial status, etc. She said she encourages anyone who feels they were erroneously billed to come to her, and added, "If someone believes there's an approach to deny people, that's not the case.
When it comes to the statements made by employees that there is an environment of "fear, retribution and punishment," Reynolds said she encourages anyone who feels he or she has been a victim of discrimination to come forward and file a report.
In regards to claims made against specific staff members, she said, "People may have feelings about things without knowing everything."
Reynolds denied a lack of participation in veteran-related events this year, citing the recent Stand Down in Sandpoint, Idaho. She said there have been five other recent Stand Downs including behavioral health and medical/dental staff who have gone out into the community. She said, "There's no deliberate ‘let's not do things' mentality," but that a balance is needed in deciding where to participate.
When it comes to the locks on the doors of the director's suite, Reynolds said the locks in the director's suite do not limit access for veterans; any veteran who comes in with concerns is directed to a claims representative. She said prior to adding the locks, there was a lot of traffic in the administration area that was very chaotic.
She said as public employees, the VA and its staff are held to a high standard, and that "people are held accountable, wherever they're positioned."
A spokesperson for Senator Patty Murray's office confirmed to KHQ's Kelsey Watts they did meet with this group of employees, and that they are continuing to look into the claims.