Whistle blower comes forward claiming VA mishandles suicidal vets

It's been nearly a year since whistle blowers first came forward bringing to light secret waiting lists at the Phoenix Veterans Administration Hospital.

Now a new whistle blower is coming forward with more claims of veterans slipping through the cracks, this time it has to do with suicidal veterans. 

FOX 10 spoke with the man who is a current employee making the claims. 

Brandon Coleman is an addiction therapist at the VA Hospital in Phoenix. He says at least five vets at risk for committing suicide were able to walk out of the VA's emergency department without receiving help just this month alone.

At least two vets who were being treated by the VA have committed suicide in the past two months. Last year a vet killed himself on the VA campus.

Coleman says the health care system is not doing enough to prevent more vets from taking their lives.

"I get the veterans that need to be picked up out of the dirt and helped," said Brandon Coleman.

Coleman says he's watched wounded warriors fight for their lives only to get lost in the battle against a dysfunctional health care system.

"Five suicidal veterans have walked out of the VA hospital deemed as suicidal, and they walked out of the clinic. We don't know what happened to them... I've had veterans that I've personally taken over there that were intoxicated, that could've been suicidal or homicidal," said Coleman.

"After I do that, veterans have walked out, it's not right, it's not doing enough," he said.

Coleman was recently put on paid administrative leave for threatening other employees, but he denies that claim. He says the leave is retaliation for speaking up about the issues at the hospital.

"I thought about taking my life, and I thought about committing suicide," said John Negrete.

Negrete is one of the 70 vets currently enrolled in Coleman's outpatient program, but without Coleman many vets futures are in limbo.

"There were people ready to walk out, we all got together as veterans, we're united, we're here to support Brandon," said Negrete.

The VA is responding to the allegations of mishandling suicidal vets. The Chief of Social Work told FOX 10 the E.R. is staffed with a mental health professional and social workers 24/7, but they can only treat vets who admit to being suicidal.

"Any person that walks into our ER department and denies that they're suicidal, there's no evidence to prove they're suicidal, they're not able to keep patients like that," said David Jacobson with the VA.

FOX 10 asked Jacobson about the claim that five suicidal vets walked out of the ER within a week this month. "I only know of one incident of that, and that vet was pretty much chased down by a nurse who convinced them to come back to be evaluated which they did, the other four cases I'm not familiar with and we are investigating that," he said.

The VA says its mental health department is not understaffed. There are about 200 social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses who treat vets with PTSD and other diseases. It also has a dedicated suicide prevention team made up of five professions who monitor vets on a weekly basis. But Coleman says those vets who go to the emergency room on the brink of a life or death crisis, those are the vets who need help the most and many are not getting it.

Senator John McCain on Friday wrote a letter urging Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Mcdonald to examine recent allegations made by Coleman that he was targeted after raising his concerns.

Dear Secretary McDonald,

I write you today to discuss my concerns about recent allegations regarding the mishandling of veterans' suicides at Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS) and the way that those allegations have been apparently handled. According to those reports, Brandon Coleman, a whistleblower who reported concerns about the way PVAHCS managed the care of patients at risk of suicide, was subject to harassment and intimidation by his superiors. My office has since learned that Mr. Coleman has been placed on administrative leave. Without prejudging the merits of Mr. Coleman's concerns but in light of recent revelations regarding related misconduct at PVAHCS, I urge you to look into and address this situation immediately.

As we have learned over the last few months, Mr. Coleman does not appear to be alone.  In a June 2014 report, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigated 37 claims of whistleblower retaliation at the VA. Furthermore, I have heard from an increasing number of current and former VA employees who have shared similar fears of retaliation for bringing serious allegations of manipulated wait times, mismanagement, and neglect to the attention of their superiors.

Those facts suggest that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to face a systemic problem in its handling of whistleblower complaints, as well as a culture that breeds intimation and retaliation. If true, this would be unacceptable. The VA must change its culture and accord all due protection to whistleblowers within the agency, as required under law. 

I look forward to your response to the concerns raised in this letter.

Sincerely,

John McCain
United States Senator


Read more about the VA Care investigations here: http://www.fox10phoenix.com/va
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