Dr. Dale Klein may be the highest-paid U.S. government employee who literally does nothing while he’s on the clock. A highly rated pain management specialist at the Southeast Missouri John J. Pershing V.A., Klein is paid $250,000 a year to work with veterans, but instead of helping those who served their country, he sits in a small office and does nothing. All day. Every day.
“I sit in a chair and I look at the walls,” the doctor said of his typical workday. “It feels like solitary confinement.”
A double board certified physician and Yale University fellow, Klein said the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) took away his patients and privileges almost a year ago after, he alleges, he blew the whistle on secret wait-lists and wait-time manipulation at the V.A. in Poplar Bluff, Mo., as well as his suspicion that some veterans were reselling their prescriptions on the black market.
When his superiors did nothing, Klein went to the inspector general.
“Immediately after the V.A. found out I made these disclosures, I started to get retaliated against,” Klein said.
Klein was initially placed on administrative leave. The Missouri-V.A. closed his pain management clinic and tried to terminate him. According to court documents, the V.A. tried to fire Klein “not based on substandard care or lack of clinical competence” but instead for “consistent acceleration of trivial matters through his chain of command.”
“I do not consider secret wait-lists and manipulations of wait times to be trivial matters,” Klein said.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency in Washington, D.C., made it clear that since the doctor was a whistleblower, he could not be fired. But Klein said the retaliation continued and believes his superiors stripped him of his duties to silence him.
“It could set a bad precedent for other whistleblowers because they’re going to say, ‘I don’t want to risk my livelihood, my career, my security because I see what happened to Dr. Klein and I don’t want that to happen to me or my family’,” said Natalie Khawam, president and founder of the Whistleblower Law Firm, which represents Klein.
The situation grew so dire that Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., chose to step in, writing a letter in January to the acting V.A. secretary requesting the V.A. “cease all retaliatory actions” against Klein.
“I’m concerned about a doctor who could be utilizing his skills to help veterans, but who is not able to utilize those skills,” Johnson said.
Remarkably, Klein isn’t the only V.A. employee who allegedly has been retaliated against. In fact, his story sounds eerily similar to that of Brian Smothers, who worked at the Denver V.A. from 2015 until last November when he says conditions grew so hostile he quit.
Smothers served in the Colorado Army National Guard and Reserves from 1999 to 2007, and later joined the Denver V.A. to help veterans engage with their own healthcare and assisted the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder clinical team.
“I come from a family of veterans who really highly values service to others and helping veterans and that’s what I wanted to dedicate my life to doing… helping veterans who may be struggling,” he said.
Smothers was working as a peer support specialist when he alleges he found more than 3,500 veterans on what he believes were “secret” wait-lists at V.A. facilities in Denver, Golden and Colorado Springs.
“It looked like some kind of game they were playing with veteran’s mental healthcare, and I was very upset,” Smothers said. “It became clear to me very quickly that many of the veterans that were on the PTSD clinical team’s wait-list had been waiting for care for three, four, five, six months,” Smothers said.
The reason, Smothers alleges, is profit: “People who run the V.A. and the mental health division hid these wait-lists so they could meet performance goals, and as a consequence of meeting these goals, got bonuses. They defrauded the federal government because it benefited them.”
Smothers is haunted by one veteran’s death in particular, an Army Ranger in Colorado Springs who told the V.A. that he had been waiting for care and was suicidal. Instead of helping him, the V.A. allegedly placed him on a wait-list and he committed suicide a short time later, Smothers said.
“I wish I could have done more to change the system from within because as far as I understand nothing is being done to change any of this,” Smothers said.
After Smothers reported the allegations to the inspector general, he said his superiors retaliated by forcing him to sit in his office, without any work assignments or authority to see patients. Human Resources also tried to get him to destroy the wait-lists, he alleges, and sign a piece of paper saying he had “compromised the integrity of the healthcare system,” Smothers said.
The V.A. declined to address the allegations on camera and instead referred us to the inspector general, who confirmed it “identified wait-time and other issues in recent published reports and testimony before Congress regarding Colorado V.A. facilities.”
Sen. Johnson intervened on Smothers’ behalf and got the inspector general to launch an investigation.
“It has quite honestly been shocking to somebody like me who comes from the private sector, the pervasiveness of retaliation even though we have 100 years of laws against retaliating against whistleblowers in government,” Johnson said.
Johnson is now trying to pass a whistleblower protection bill to help V.A. employees like Smothers and Klein.
A spokesperson from the V.A. said due to on-going investigations, the V.A. cannot comment on specific cases but added the department recognizes the importance of all employees, to include whistleblowers, who identify problems that impede the optimal delivery of care and services to Veterans.
Klein said he hopes the V.A., under the Trump administration, will make substantial changes so veterans can get quality care they need and so those who uncover problems or wrongdoing – and report it – are protected.
“This is a heart-stopping moment for the V.A. and the transformation can start in Poplar Bluff, Mo.”