VA Clinic entrance

The new VA Clinic in Billings Thursday July 3, 2014.

BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff

Montana elected officials preached timely care and accountability for the Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System but otherwise said little about an ongoing whistleblower case.

The Montana VA is facing its second allegation of whistleblower retaliation in less than two years. The previous case led to the resignation of Director John Ginnity in July 2016.

The current case involves a staff dentist at the Billings VA clinic. His office has been shut down since January, though the dentist remains on staff, and veterans have been sent hundreds of miles away for simple procedures in some cases.

But statements from Montana politicians avoided specifics about the allegations at the Montana VA, the service blackouts or leadership in the system.

“VA Montana must move quickly to ensure that Billings-area veterans can receive more timely and accessible dental care,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Tester also was an author and cosponsor of the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which went into law earlier this year. Pressed further for comment on the Montana VA’s treatment of whistleblowers, a Tester spokeswoman deferred to the VA.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, declined to comment on the ongoing case but said that both the VA and whistleblowers should have the ability to expose misconduct.

“Sen. Daines won’t speculate on what could have been or might be," the spokeswoman said. "Provider care funding will be addressed along with a number of other Choice concerns in upcoming community care reform and re-authorization legislation.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, also reserved judgment while dentist Kelly Hale's case is still being considered by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

“Our veterans have sacrificed selflessly on behalf of our nation, and we owe them the very best care possible," he said. "I look forward to the Office of Special Counsel concluding its review so that appropriate action can be taken."

Sens. Tester and Daines vowed to seek accountability in 2016, when the Montana VA's retaliation against another whistleblower led to the resignation of Ginnity, the system's previous director.

Kathy Berger took over as interim director. She was named to the permanent position in late October 2016, just as the report on Hale's allegations was released internally to the VA.

Documents in Hale's case said that the Montana VA director ordered the personnel review of the dentist.

Hale’s case exposed practices that caused unnecessary delays for patients waiting for consultations. The delays caused patients pain and likely affected the health of veterans, according to an internal investigation.

Soon after Hale revealed himself as the whistleblower to his superiors, the VA launched a personnel review. The investigation found misconduct by Hale, and the VA recommended that he be fired, according to documents filed in the case.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, acting on behalf of Hale, has requested a judge's ruling, alleging that VA officials ordered the conduct review as retaliation against Hale for his disclosures.

The VA closed the Billings dental office where Hale worked, though Hale remains on staff while his case plays out. Patients have been referred to other VA facilities hundreds of miles away or to community provider services, like Veterans Choice, which have been unavailable for lack of funding.

Veterans expressed frustration about the timeliness and access to VA care during a forum held in Helena on Monday.

The VA has not commented specifically on Hale's case, saying it's a private personnel issue. But it also hasn't responded to more broad questions about Billings dental services, which has been shut down since January, and whether changes have been made under the new whistleblower law.

"We have nothing to add to our previous statement on this issue," said Brandon Freitas, a Montana VA spokesman, in an email.

The VA turned down multiple requests to interview Berger.

The Merit Services Protection Board, where Hale's case is being reviewed, has yet to make a final decision.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.