Veteran Affairs whistleblowers claim retaliation for complaints about doctor

© Scott Olson / Getty Images
Two staffers at a Veteran Affairs hospital have lodged complaints saying that hospital management retaliated against them for reporting a doctor’s loss of cognitive functions in his treatment of patients.

Whistleblowers James DeNofrio and Dr. Timothy Skarada of the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Altoona, Pennsylvania claim that management violated Veteran Affairs (VA) regulations for two years by failing to prevent a mentally impaired doctor from practicing, and by harassing the whistleblowers who pointed out the problem, according to a letter released last week.

Starting in 2013, the letter says, several people complained that Dr. Frederick Struthers, who was the head of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services (PM&RS) Department, was showing signs of impaired cognitive functions.

Struthers once conducted a testicular examination without gloves in front of two female employees, did not wash his hands afterwards and never documented the encounter, the whistleblowers say. On another occasion, the doctor unnecessarily delayed pain treatment to mitigate the suffering of a dying patient. Other incidents the two men described involved Struthers treating patients in the hallway, problems with chronic tardiness, and difficulty remembering conversations.

Now, the whistleblowers say, the VA is trying to scapegoat Struthers, even though management failed to provide him with “the assistance that he needed when the reports were made to the Agency.”

"Prior to the issues and disclosures found in Agency report, Dr. Struthers was one of the finest physicians and persons that the whistleblowers have ever known," the whistleblowers stated in the letter, adding that they only wanted to get him help and protect patients.

The whistleblowers say that leadership failed to do anything about the complaints for five months, when Struthers was finally tested. The doctor passed a cognitive test administered to him, and ‒ while they found shortcomings with Struther’s practices ‒ VAMC leadership determined that he was competent and that no patients were harmed. The whistleblowers were instructed stop filing complaints.

However, Struthers was removed from seeing patients in March 2015, after he was fully evaluated in accordance with VA policies. He was allowed to retire in November that year.

But the issues didn’t end there, the whistleblowers claim. DeNofrio and Skarada were repeatedly investigated and were removed from committees, Struthers was told who reported him, and DeNofrio – a veteran – says that his medical records were illegally accessed.

DeNofrio said that after he went to the Office of Special Council (OSC) to file a complaint for witness tampering in January, James Mills, the VAMC director at the time, initiated an administrative investigation in him that could terminate DeNofrio from his job.

"Altoona VAMC leadership and VA leadership is dysfunctional at all levels and is committed to the protection and advancement of their own self-interests, agendas and motivations," the letter said. "There seems to be a general consensus that retaliation is acceptable in VA, and those that do come forward do at their own peril and detriment to their careers."

A July report from the VA Office of Medical Investigations has cleared the VAMC leadership of any wrongdoing, even though it found that the initial cognitive evaluation of Struthers didn’t comply with the procedures outlined in the VA Handbook.

“VA did not substantiate that Medical Center officials have failed to respond to continuing concerns regarding Dr. Struthers’ impairment and incompetency,” the letter said.

The OSC also conducted an investigation of Struthers and the whistleblowers’ accusations of retaliation.

"The VA investigated and responded to the allegations referred to the secretary," OSC head Carolyn Lerner wrote in a February letter. "This matter is now closed."