Every day, when Dr. Kelly Hale goes to the Veterans Affairs clinic in Billings, he goes to the clinic, sees no patients, and does ... well, who knows what, and then draws approximately $600 -- his contracted salary as a VA dentist.
That's been going on for more than a year. And during that year, Dr. Hale has earned more than $176,000 for literally doing nothing.
It's not necessarily his fault, though. Trouble for him began when he filed complaints outlining unreasonable waiting times for veterans with painful dental conditions. He took aim at the then chief dental officer for Montana VA, who was dismissed, but later put on contract.
Hale filed a whistleblower protection suit, alleging that his termination was because he exposed some of these shady dealings within the Montana VA. The Inspector General for the VA seemed to agree that his case of termination had enough merit to grant him whistleblower status.
So, Montana VA has stuck by its gun...er, drills and floss, and not let Hale practice, insisting that he should be fired.
Hale has showed up for work, ready to practice dentistry because he maintains the firing was retaliatory.
Meanwhile, veterans who have earned the benefits continued to be sent elsewhere while a qualified dentist was barred from working. All along, the taxpayers have been footing the bill for Hale's salary, which is just a little shy of $180,000.
We can't see a winner in this situation.
The VA has to hire another dentist. Veterans have to wait longer or go farther to get dental care. A seemingly good dentist is not allowed to work with patients. Taxpayers are literally paying for nothing.
We've editorialized that VA Montana continues to be problematic, bordering on a mess. Montana Sen. Jon Tester has gotten VA secretaries to come here, but the truth is: We haven't seen the kind of sweeping overhauls that are needed. That's the VA's fault.
Most veterans will tell you as soon as they get into a care provider within the VA, the medical care is good to excellent. Breaking into the system or navigating it can still be a nightmare.
We also think that Dr. Hale's case, while exceptional, may not be unique. It is just one of the cases we've heard about. Remember that a couple months ago, a VA facility in Iowa tried to hire a neurosurgeon who was still clearing legal trouble here. Tester helped stop that hire, though.
We also believe that the VA system and the Merit Systems Protection Board, which has oversight on Hale's case, should be able to make a determination on a whistleblower complaint in less than 13 months. Why can't an investigation and conclusion be done in less than a year? If Hale is truly a whistleblower, then he should be exonerated, made whole, and allowed to practice. If he was a bad actor, as the VA claims, then the federal government is just wasting money it could be spending on veterans' care. Either way, the worst possible solution is paying him to sit.
If VA leaders want citizens to believe that real changes are happening for the better inside the system, they can't allow cases like Dr. Hale's to linger forever. This may be out-of-the-ordinary for the VA, but it shouldn't happen once. Too many veterans need help, and there is too little funding to waste on a dentist who just sits.
We appreciate that a merit review board will hear Hale's case, and that's it's a deliberative process. But, Hale hasn't practiced in more than a year. The board got the case in October, after nearly 10 months of VA investigation, where Hale sat. This situation continues to be drawn out with no end in sight. Or at least not one that officials in the federal government will disclose.
That's part of the issue -- transparency and accountability are virtually no existent in the fortress of federal government.
Can someone get veterans more help or quit wasting taxpayers' money?
How about for every dollar that is wasted on Hale, VA Montana loses an equal amount on administration? Or how about Congress pass reforms to merit review panels that speed the process and save taxpayer money instead?