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Federal watchdog finds VA ignored bullying complaints

March 5, 2021 GMT

A federal watchdog agency has found that Vermont’s Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital failed to properly investigate allegations from several employees about bullying and other abuses by another doctor.

In a letter to President Joe Biden Thursday, the Office of Special Counsel’s Henry Kerner acknowledged that the VA was unable to substantiate the allegations of serious misconduct against Fima Lenkovsky, the former chief of the hospital’s anesthesiology department, who has since retired. But Kerner said its conclusions “appears to ignore both the details of a prior incident and the sworn testimony of the whistleblowers that included information regarding several confrontational incidents involving the doctor.”

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“The reports evince a willingness to resolve issues in favor of the agency, despite significant evidence to the contrary and a reluctance to conduct further review to resolve unanswered and potentially troubling questions,” Kerner said in his letter. “For these reasons, I have determined that the agency’s findings do not appear reasonable.”

Lawyers representing the four employees, who are all women, welcomed the watchdog agency’s finding.

“The VA’s continued willingness to resolve issues in favor of the agency, despite significant evidence to the contrary, shows that it was incapable of policing itself,” Phillipa Lilienthal and Andrea Amodeo-Vickery said in a joint statement. “Our clients, the female health care providers who served Veterans faithfully for decades, should have been protected when they reported verbal and physical abuse and inappropriate behavior that caused injury to patients.”

In a response to the letter Friday, the VA said the matter was investigated by the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector.

“We see no reason to disturb those findings now, but we fully support the rights of all VA whistleblowers to raise matters of concern so they can be reviewed and remedied,” Alan Greilsamer, the VA’s director of media relations, said in a statement.

A phone number could not be found for Lenkovsky, but he told The Boston Globe Thursday that an independent panel had cleared him of wrongdoing.

One of the four employees, Dr. Jennifer Keller, was fired in 2018 from her job at the White River Junction VA hospital after allegedly leaving an operating room during two surgical procedures, putting patient lives at risk.

Keller and other female employees claim her firing came in reprisal for speaking out against Lenkovsky for allegedly bullying and harassing female employees, including reporting an alleged assault against a nurse during an operation in June 2018, when he allegedly hit her arm during a surgery.

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The VA denies the allegations that it retaliated against Keller.

Two weeks after the alleged assault, Keller and three nurses, including the nurse who said Lenkovsky hit her, met with the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Brett Rusch. Following the meeting with Rusch, Lenkovsky was suspended during a five-week internal investigation. He returned to work in August and retired in December.

VA officials dismissed the assault allegation as “blatantly dishonest,” prompting Kerner to write in his letter to Biden Thursday that its response was “an appalling attack on a VA employee who was struck by a supervisor while appropriately discharging her duties.”

The Office of Special Counsel, which is an independent federal investigative agency, is still investigating Keller’s claim of retaliation.

In a joint statement, Vermont’s congressional delegation, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, came to the defense of the whistleblowers.

“When someone sees something wrong, they need to have the confidence that speaking up will lead to a good faith investigation and positive change,” they said.