The VA has failed to deliver timely, closest-to-home dental care for Billings area veterans for years. The public just learned the extent of the failure last week with a Gazette news report from Matt Hudson.
The most outrageous part of this failure is that VA supervisors knew of a problem that they failed to correct – for at least 1 ½ years, according to investigative documents. Now the VA is trying to fire the whistleblower whose complaint led to fixing long-running problems. Even worse: The VA dental clinic in Billings hasn’t served any patients since January while the dentist, Dr. Kelly Hale, fights his termination and VA leadership in Helena keeps him in an “administrative” job.
According to documents made public by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, VA Montana had been using an unauthorized form and process to refer veterans to community dentists. This process took days or weeks longer than necessary as VA dentists faxed paper forms to their supervisor in Helena, who rejected some requests, and approved forms were input into the computer system by clerks. In one case, a veteran with a mouth lesion waited 11 weeks for a referral to community care.
The VA has been praised for its national electronic patient record, but VA Montana staff dentists weren’t given access to enter recommended community referrals into that system until after complaints in December 2015 failed to correct the process, an internal investigation concluded in Feb. 2016 that corrections were needed and in May the Office of Special Counsel substantiated the complaints leading to care delay because the problems still hadn’t been fixed.
What did Hale get? In October 2016, two weeks after his Helena superiors learned that he blew the whistle, they requested an investigation into Hale’s conduct. In January, the Billings VA clinic was closed, so veterans who want to use their hard-earned VA benefits have been told to drive to Helena or Sheridan, Wyoming. Billings community dental referrals have been limited and delayed.
Dr. Robert Bourne, who as chief of dental services ordered Hale to “engage in practices that violate VA policies and directives and risk patient health,” has “stepped down” from that supervisory post and works as a VA staff dentist, according to a letter from Acting Special Counsel Adam Miles dated Aug. 1 2017. So the dentist who failed to fix the problem as directed repeatedly was still seeing patients, but the one who complained on patients’ behalf is targeted for firing.
The Office of Special Counsel is defending Hale from this apparent retaliation. The OSC obtained a stay that will delay his firing at least till Nov. 19.
On Oct. 10 VA Montana spokesman Mike Garcia in Helena said that Billings is scheduled to have a VA dentist seeing patients starting in January. That’s about all VA Montana has said publicly about this deplorable lapse in essential health care for veterans.
So we are left to wonder: Is VA Montana expecting to fire Kelly next month, and replace him in January?
How many dentists will be willing to work for an agency that fires a whistle blower whose complaint directly resulted in improving patient care?
Top leadership at VA Montana changed last year, but the top decision makers, including Director Kathy Berger, have been on board during the OSC investigation, the substantiation of Kelly’s complaints and the belated correction of dental directives.
Most Montana veterans report that they get good care at the VA and that they like their VA health care providers. But problems of access, delay and mismanagement persist. These failings force veterans to endure pain, to wait for diagnosis and care.
We call on Montana’s congressional delegation, especially Sen. Jon Tester, who serves on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, to hold the VA accountable for failing Montana veterans. Billings veterans shouldn’t have to travel out of town for essential dental care.