A man who helps disabled veterans with transportation to Montana’s VA facilities has been threatened with a $50 fine for appearing in a photo with a newspaper article critical of the new West End VA clinic.
In a sworn affidavit, Ed Saunders, adjutant of Billings Chapter 10 of Disabled American Veterans, said he was at the Billings VA Clinic on Aug. 18 on DAV business when VA police officer Steve McCollum asked Saunders to come to his office.
McCollum said he wanted a written statement from Saunders about his involvement with the Billings Gazette photo that was published Aug. 15. The news article centered on glitches with the opening of the new $6.3 million Majestic Lane Clinic. Saunders was among those critical of the clinic.
McCollum claimed being in an unauthorized photo on VA property is in violation of VA rules and subject to a $50 fine, according to Saunders’ notarized statement.
Saunders was not aware of the photo rule and said as a DAV public affairs officer he has taken many photos of DAV activities on VA property, including dedication of the new clinic when Montana’s congressional delegation was on hand. Saunders said he has also taken photos of DAV vans parked on VA property.
“On all occasions thus far, I never had to get permission to take a photo nor did any VA employee or VA policeman say I had to have permission,” Saunders said in the statement.
Saunders said he was told by McCollum the rule was a “way for VA to check for possible terrorist activity.”
According to the Code of Federal Regulations on VA Property, photographs for advertising or commercial purposes may be taken only with the written consent of the head of the facility or designee. Photographs for news purposes may be taken at entrances, lobbies, foyers or in other places designated by the head of the facility or designee.
“VA Montana’s foremost concern is patient privacy,” said Randy Martin, public affairs officer for the VA Montana Health Care System. “As we welcome media to our facility, our policies require photographers to have prior authorization from the patient before any photos can be taken. We also offer escorts to guarantee veterans’ rights are protected and veterans do not feel pressured.”
Saunders said he felt no pressure to be photographed.
In an interview with The Gazette, Saunders said he felt McCollum’s actions were designed to “intimidate” him.
Saunders said he knows McCollum and described him a “solid, approachable officer” with whom he often chats when he’s at the clinic conducting DAV business.
The Gazette has always had a practice of working with government agencies for photos and stories, as that’s one of the staples of news coverage, said editor Darrell Ehrlick.
“However, we also believe that entrances, lobbies — other public areas — of publicly funded, publicly supported government agencies are acceptable places to shoot photographs for news stories,” Ehrlick said. “Our staff took a picture of Mr. Saunders in an open, public commons area. For a federal government agency to try to restrict or limit access in a place where any member of the public could just walk in seems like this has more to do with limiting the type of news and information about the VA. I would also point out that the VA’s own policies indicate that news photography is allowed in the lobbies, foyers and entrances, so it’s a bit perplexing to see this situation.”
Saunders said he has not been formally cited with any offense and has not paid a fine. But the incident further erodes his confidence in the VA Health Care System.
“I’m pulling out of the VA medical system entirely,” Saunders said, adding that he will move all of his medical care to Billings Clinic and has canceled all future appointments.
“I am fortunate,” he said. “I have private insurance and have the option of leaving the VA. Many veterans don’t. That breaks my heart.”
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the state’s only member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said, “It’s unfortunate this situation developed. The VA needs to focus on delivering the health care veterans earned. The VA has bigger fights to fight than this.”
The threat of a fine, claims of intimidation and the departure of one of Yellowstone County’s most respected veteran leaders from the VA Health Care System comes at a time when public confidence in the VA is eroding.
A federal investigation is underway into problems in the VA Health Care System nationwide. Montana’s sites at Fort Harrison and Billings are among about a third of the audited sites flagged for further investigation.