When a highly experienced public affairs practitioner raised concerns about mismanagement it led to a long and bruising fight with the Department of Veterans Affairs. By Paula Pedene.
On December 10, 2012 my life changed forever, but little did I know that it was the starting point of something that would transcend across the country.
It was on this day the Associate Director (AD) at the Phoenix VA took me out of my 21-year position as a VA Public Affairs Officer for what was later confirmed as a minor infraction. It was the starting point on my journey in the efforts to expose the VA Wait Time Scandal.
On that day, I called my employee representative Roger French. We strategized and began our fight against the banishment to the basement. The AD took away my Blackberry. He took away my keys to the office and entombed it. He took away my job. And then he took away my voice, informing me I could not discuss what was happening with anyone.
The battle line was drawn and I came to realize it would be like David taking on Goliath. Here I was, a federal employee forging ahead in battle against the Department of Veterans Affairs, where the lawyers were paid staff, time was on their side, and there were dozens against us.
It started with a war of letters. Letters from our side to theirs, letters from their side to ours and in between nothing. Just the drudgery of going to work day after day and being miserable. Not because of what I was doing—I was still serving Veterans—I just wasn’t in the job I loved in the PR world where there were meetings, events, digital marketing, writing, counsel, relationship engagement in every forum with our patients, our staff, the media, congressional members, leadership and more. Now it was just checking in books, checking out books, signing patients onto the computer, making copies, sending faxes and the like.
French kept telling me this whole charade was designed to make you miserable so you’d quit. They’d drag their feet as long as they could make your job tedious, have your supervisor find things where there can be fault, and they’d humiliate you as much as they could. I couldn’t fathom such a scenario, but he was right on every count. The VA leaders were in charge and I was their target.
I slipped into depression where the days were long and gray. The first few months I cried a lot and thrived on the calls from my representatives. My world went from dealing with dozens, if not hundreds of people every day to less than a handful. After inordinate delays in their “investigation” we decided to file a Whistleblower Reprisal case with the Office of Special Counsel.
In waiting for this process, at my new job in the library, I started to hear things. The patients were waiting a long time to get their appointments. I heard about the secret list of patients and watched in dismay as it moved from drawer, to drawer, to drawer. I heard from the pharmacists, the nurses, the providers about how they felt the care for our patients was being hindered under this new leadership team. I knew I needed to take a stand.
My former reporter mode kicked in and with my employee representative we started fact checking. We learned the information management was sharing about their “14-day access to care for Veterans” wasn’t true. In fact, for many new patients the waits for appointments were often between six months to more than a year. So we collaborated our efforts with our modern day David, Dr. Sam Foote, to see what we could do to fight the Goliath of the VA Wait Time Scandal.
Dr. Foote had his own information; he had been verifying it too. He decided to let the Office of the Inspector General know. He did this on several separate occasions only for it to fall on deaf ears.
Eventually he decided that the only way to get the story told was to retire and expose it. When he made that move, our collaboration intensified and our focus turned from my Whistleblower Reprisal case to the line of attack on the VA Wait Time Scandal.
Here we helped Dr. Foote prepare for the battle. We strategized about media, how to create and refine messages. I lined him up with a retired politician for insights and put him in touch with media members. When we kept hitting dead ends, we’d try another avenue.
Finally, we hit pay dirt when we reached out to the staff at House Veterans Affairs. They took in all the evidence, they listened and took action. They felt that those who were hurting our Veterans needed to be stopped. We owe a debt of gratitude to Congressman Jeff Miller, Chair of House Veterans Affairs, who on April 9th asked VA at a hearing….and if I told you that we have evidence where up to 40 patients may have died while waiting for VA care in Phoenix…. that’s when the modern day Goliath took a blow.
From that point forward, the media took hold and the outrage was evident. “Up to 40 Vets May Have Died While Being Placed on Secret Wait List; A Fatal Wait, Veterans Languish and Die While on Secret List, Deaths at Phoenix VA Hospital May Be Tied to Delayed Care,” and the list went on and on.
What we didn’t know at the time was how widespread the scandal would become…110 of the 156 VA hospitals nationwide would be involved in the scandal and perhaps one of the most disappointing parts, hardly any VA executives would be held accountable for the dishonor to our nation’s Veterans: Chronic Indifference at Veterans Affairs.
As the media reports continue to demonstrate, the VA’s lack of accountability is a sore point to many: the patients, the families, their communities, the good and ethical staff at VA, Congress, media and the American People. If only the ending could be as pure as the story of David versus Goliath where the bully is slayed with one stone.
Unfortunately, it appears that Abraham Lincoln’s intent of “caring for those who have borne the battle” has ironically become a burden – not in the honor of caring for our veterans – but in struggling with those in VA leadership who allow Whistleblower Reprisal to go unpunished and to those who accept delays in care for our Veterans as status quo.
About the author
Paula L. Pedene APR, Fellow PRSA, has earned a reputation as a public relations strategist and counselor for her work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and non-profit entities. During her career as a VA Public Affairs Officer she has earned three Public Relations Society of America Silver Anvil awards –Institutional Programs (2004) Reputation Management (2007) and Community Outreach (2010) along with more than 80 other awards from both inside and outside government, the most awards of any VA PAO in the country. She is now a Senior Communications Specialist with the VA Office of Communications in DC and telecommutes from Phoenix in a virtual capacity. The Public Relations Society of America named her PR Professional of the Year for her Government Whistleblower Activities.
Pedene was one of the first whistleblowers at the Phoenix VA. In 2010 in collaboration with Dr. Sam Foote she disclosed mismanagement of fee basis funds and reported a hostile work environment to the Office of the Inspector General. The charges were substantiated and both the director and associate director were forced to retire. In 2012 she was reprised against for her whistleblowing activities. She was taken out of her Public Affairs Officer role that she had served in for 20 years for an alleged computer infraction, and spent two years in the basement as a clerk in the VA library. She appealed to the Office of Special Counsel for relief and won her whistleblower case against VA in 2014. You can read the original post from IPRA here.