Battleland

“Why I Quit the VA”

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Nicholas Tolentino spelled out the reasons he resigned from New Hampshire’s main Department of Veterans Affairs health center Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

While his prepared remarks also detail just how flexible the VA’s data are when it comes to showing that vets are getting adequate mental-health care, it’s why the 14-year Navy vet says he left the VA last December after two years that may be most illuminating – and frustrating:

I could detail other instances of unethical practice at the Manchester VAMC that contributed to my decision to resign, but the final straw occurred when the medical center failed to take meaningful action in response to the discovery that a VA clinical psychopharmacologist was intoxicated while providing patient care. On October 31st, 2011 the Mental Health Service Line Manager discovered that a psychopharmacologist at our facility was noticeably intoxicated and slurring his speech. The Service Line Manager became aware of this situation when a veteran reported that the clinician had failed to appear for an appointment. Looking into the matter, I discovered that he had written numerous prescriptions during that day, presumably during the period of his intoxication.

The very next day, while the clinician was again treating patients, a water bottle was found hidden in that clinician’s personal office refrigerator that was filled with a brown fluid clearly smelling of alcohol.  An internal panel was convened, but the panel seemed to be more of a formality than an actual investigatory board. I was disturbed to learn that the incident did not lead to the clinician’s removal, and instead he was simply transferred to work in the pharmacy. To make matters worse, the service line manager’s response to my protest regarding the lack of action was to imply that, as a combat veteran, I was likely also vulnerable to substance abuse.

That implication, notwithstanding my impeccable employment history, was not only personally insulting, but unfathomable coming from a psychiatrist responsible for the facility’s mental health service. A similar attempt to imply that my combat veteran status is a personal liability was made after my resignation, when I provided voluntary testimony to an internal investigative board. The board attempted to discredit my testimony by stating that my responses to incidents I’d reported were simply magnified by my combat experiences and resulting emotional instability.

The VA also took it on the chin from one of its in-house bloggers, commenting on the bizarre and inaccurate ways the agency keeps track of waiting times for mental-health appointments. The VA inspector general released a report Monday highly critical of how it’s done. On Wednesday, Alex Horton, a VA blogger who spent 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq, vented:

When a Veteran calls and says he or she needs help, and we say the first available appointment is several weeks away, we have failed that Veteran by our own standard. It’s past time to say we will fix the problem, or that solutions are on the horizon. The best we can do now is to honor the living and the dead by being advocates and taking the failures we accumulate not as statistics, but scars. It should grind us up; eat at us and shock us. It should drive us. We must face the idea that thousands of returned Veterans need assistance every single day. Then we must look forward, anticipate their needs, and do better. Each of us owes that much to the Vet out there, in a dark place, looking to us to help heal the trauma inflicted on our behalf.

The VA does have a disclaimer on its Vantage Point blog: “Be aware that the comments published on all parts of this page—even when the commenter identifies himself or herself as a VA employee—are not to be considered official communications from the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

No kidding.

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