At least four former high-level managers in the VA Montana Health Care System, including a former human resources director, attorney, physician and facilities manager, are calling for Director Robin Korogi to resign immediately because she has created an acrimonious work environment, jeopardized patient safety and subjected VA Montana to lawsuits.
"She has to go," said Charlie Hail, who worked as an attorney for the VA for 21 years. "Absolutely. No questions asked. She continues to fire people without cause and is opening up the VA to litigation."
The chorus of voices calling for Korogi's resignation comes on the heels of a Billings Gazette article published Sunday focusing on why VA Montana has failed in recruiting in-patient psychiatrists to staff a mental health facility at Fort Harrison. The eight-bed acute-care wing has not been in operation since the $7 million facility was opened in June 2011. Current and former employees say the toxic work environment makes it impossible to recruit psychiatrists to the facility, and they hold Korogi responsible.
The situation has become so dire that it was a subject on Capitol Hill last week when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the state's only member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, brought it to the attention of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel.
"I met with the head of the Veteran's Health Administration to tell him to fix the situation at the Montana VA, and I expect to see action soon," Tester said Wednesday.
Korogi did not respond to several invitations from The Gazette to comment.
As a member of the legislative branch of government, Tester does not have authority to make personnel decisions in the executive branch. As a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, he has an oversight role that he is using to raise this issue with top officials at the VA.
Michael Harris, former chief of Facilities Management Services, and Aggie Hamilton, former human resources director, also on Wednesday called on Korogi to resign. Harris, who left the VA in December after nearly 26 years, said he retired early in part due to Korogi.
"I don't think she's an appropriate director," said Harris, who served as chief of the department for 13 years. "She's created a poisonous atmosphere and a difficult work environment. It was my observation that there was a feeling of intimidation and fear throughout the organization, especially for (department managers.)"
Moreover, Harris said Korogi might be a distraction to the mission of VA Montana. Instead of helping her department managers, Harris said she undermined and micromanaged them.
"Morale was as bad as I had ever seen it there," Harris said. "It concerns me that the current director may be negatively affecting the ability to perform."
Dr. Patrick Morrow, an internist at the VA for nearly seven years before leaving in July 2011, also called for Korogi's resignation. While at VA Montana, Morrow served as vice president of the union representing licensed professionals.
Morrow now works as assistant medical director for a major Montana insurance company. He said he found Korogi's administrative policies to be incompatible with his values.
"I do believe the policies she was instituting and the direction she was taking created safety issues for patients as well as the providers," Morrow said. "We were forced to do things that ultimately could have put our licenses and reputations at risk."
Korogi, who does not have a medical background, repeatedly made clinical decisions that affected patients' lives, which she was not qualified to make, Morrow said. He's not the first to cite concern for veterans' health and well-being.
Hail also told The Billings Gazette that he left because he grew increasingly concerned that Korogi was "jeopardizing patient safety."
Dr. Peter Wendt, the only full-time orthopedic surgeon at VA Montana for nearly 11 years, said he also left because of Korogi. Once planning to spend the rest of his career at VA Montana, Wendt is now in private practice in Anaconda.
"Patients were not treated as patients," Wendt said. "They were treated as a number. It was harder and harder to deliver care I was proud of. In the end, I was no longer proud to say I worked at the VA."
Physicians, Wendt said, were questioned about the medical care they were dispensing and were instructed on how to care for patients. Under Korogi's administration, Wendt said the facility was run as a business, not as a medical facility. Basic communication between patients and their physicians became difficult, even impossible, because of the way Korogi set up the phone system.
"It was just a painful experience at the end," Wendt said. "It was a great relief to exit it."