The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to seriously investigate harassment allegations by four women against the chief of anesthesiology at Vermont’s White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the head of a federal watchdog agency concluded Thursday.
In a sharply critical letter to President Biden, Henry Kerner, the head of the US Office of Special Counsel, said the VA showed “a willingness to resolve issues in favor of the agency, despite significant evidence to the contrary.”
VA investigators rejected nearly all of the women’s allegations and refused to review them further “to resolve unanswered and potentially troubling questions” even after the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower complaints by federal employees, instructed them to, Kerner found.
In 2018, a doctor and three other operating room employees filed whistle-blower complaints against Dr. Fima Lenkovsky, then the chief of the hospital’s anesthesiology department.
They accused him of sleeping on the job, bullying and harassing women, and striking a nurse during an operation in June 2018.
One of the whistle-blowers, anesthesiologist Jennifer Keller, was fired, allegedly for endangering patient safety by leaving a medical student unattended during surgery. However, the doctor and the other women asserted that she was fired for speaking out against Lenkovsky, who was suspended for 30 days and then allowed to retire. Until then, Keller had an unblemished record, her lawyer said.
Kerner wrote that the VA discounted “a concerning and significant pattern of violent physical behavior by this individual (Lenkovsky) directed toward female staff.”
When the Globe reported on the allegations in July 2019, a VA spokesman dismissed the allegation that Lenkovsky had intentionally struck Christine Murphy, the hospital’s chief nurse anesthetist. The spokesman called the charge “blatantly dishonest” and “disrespectful to actual assault victims, which Murphy is clearly not.” He claimed the contact was accidental.
Kerner found the spokesman’s comments especially troubling.
“The agency seems to disregard a concerning and significant pattern of violent physical behavior by this individual directed toward female staff,” said Kerner, who called the press statement “an appalling attack on a VA employee who was struck by a supervisor while appropriately discharging her duties.”
VA spokesman Alan Greilsamer issued a statement saying: “This matter was investigated by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector and former Secretary (Robert) Wilkie signed the reports to the Office of Special Counsel containing the agency’s findings. 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 when appropriate.”
On Thursday, Keller said she and the other women were “very pleased that the Office of Special Counsel recognized that injustice was done here.”
“There are wrongs that still need to be righted,” she said. “The culture for women and those not in power remains hostile. Leadership is still entrenched and promotes a culture of self-affirmation, accusing others without basis while ignoring its own failures. Until the issue of competent leadership is addressed directly, veterans won’t receive the care they need.”
In an interview, Lenkovsky said a lengthy investigation concluded he had done nothing wrong.
“It’s such a long story,” he said. “I’ve been retired for more than three years. An independent panel cleared me of all wrongdoing. Why should it be reopened again? The doctor who complained should never work with patients.”
The women first filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency, which found the complaints had merit and ordered the VA’s Office of Medical Inspector to conduct a deeper investigation. Thursday’s letter represented the Special Counsel’s response to the VA’s findings.
The agency has no authority to order changes and can only send its findings to the president and Congress. That allows wrongdoing, individual and systemic, to go unpunished, said Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, one of the lawyers who represented the women in the Vermont case.
“This is the fourth case I have worked on involving a VA medical center where doctors have complained about inadequate patient care, abuse of patients, and abuse of personnel,” she said. “The Office of Special Counsel writes to the president and Congress complaining about the inappropriateness of another section of the VA being tasked to investigate itself.
“It doesn’t work and so the abuse goes on unchecked by either Congress or the president. All the good guys get fired,” she said.
Phillipa Lilienthal, a lawyer who also represents the whistle-blowers, said Kerner’s letter “aptly identified some of the troubling issues in this case. There were significant institutional disclosures by multiple employees regarding a pattern of abusive behavior by Dr. Lenkovsky, in particular behavior directed at subordinate female employees. Yet the VA ignored the evidence and determined there were no concerns.”
Most of the women are still working at the Vermont facility, as are some of the officials “who tacitly or vocally” approved Lenkovsky’s behavior, she said.
“The whistle-blowers also urge the VA to do more to ensure that the rights of employees are protected, because employees who are not protected from abuse put veterans’ safety at risk,” she said.
The VA did substantiate one allegation — that a patient was harmed while being intubated. Though the whistle-blowers blamed Lenkovsky, he blamed another inexperienced doctor and the VA agreed, contradicting eyewitness testimony, Kerner found.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.