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Exclusive — VA Whistleblower on Veteran Suicide: It’s a Systemic Problem

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After a veteran committed suicide in the parking lot of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs regional office earlier this month, more and more VA employees are speaking out about the ongoing problems and inefficient care at the Phoenix VA.

In an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, whistleblower Brandon Coleman said the improper care at the emergency room for suicidal veterans is a huge problem, potentially placing liability on poor management at the facility.

“I’m a veteran first before I’m a VA employee,” said whistleblower Brandon Coleman in an earlier interview with KNXV, a local ABC affiliate.

Coleman, a former Marine and now an addiction specialist at the Phoenix VA, has been speaking out since late 2014 about the lack of care available for suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA.

This isn’t the first time this particular VA facility has made news headlines. Early last year, several veterans died while placed on backlogged waitlists at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care facility, which sparked a nationwide investigation by the federal government into several VA medical facilities across the country.

Veteran suicide has been a problem plaguing the United States, with more than twenty veterans committing suicide each day, according to government statistics.

Coleman said, as a VA employee, if he had a suicidal veteran that needed a higher level of psychiatric care, he would take them to the emergency room and hand them off to the staff there. “However often times they were not watched and were able to simply walk out of the hospital without receiving proper treatment,” Coleman explained.

He said he also has an audio recording, which he provided with the Office of Special Council where, according to Coleman, Laurie Shea, an ER social worker states, “Five suicidal veterans were able to walk out of the hospital this past week.” The Chief of Social Work David Jacobson responded to Shea, “We are just lucky nothing bad has happened yet.”

Coleman said he has lost six veterans under his care to suicide. “After each of my six vets committed suicide, no supervisors ever once asked me how I was doing, or how I was holding up? However, after I came forward as a whistleblower, they started questioning my mental health,” Coleman told Breitbart News.

Coleman also provided Breitbart News with an audio recording, made by a VA employee who wished to remain anonymous, of Assistant Chief of Social Work Michael Leon at a meeting held at the Phoenix VA Hospital earlier this year in which Leon says one of his top priorities at the VA facility is “making sure we all get paid effectively.”

Coleman told Breitbart News, “We get paid very well for what we do and employee pay should NOT be a top priority at the Phoenix VA as vets continue to slip through the cracks.”

Jean Schaefer, a spokesperson with the Phoenix VA, defended Leon’s statement to Breitbart News, “One of the responsibilities that individual has is to make sure people get paid effectively—that is one of their jobs.”

She added, “That wouldn’t be unusual for him to say… That is one of his responsibilities.”

Schaefer also responded to Coleman’s other allegations.

“Mr. Coleman did make a number of validations about care in the emergency room, and we have taken a number of steps to correct some of those deficiencies,” she said.

Some of these steps include having a social worker present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She explained, “Should the scheduled social worker call in sick or have some other personal emergency, the chief or associate chief of social work will work to identify staff to fill in.”

She provided a list of additional changes to Breitbart News, which include: adding new positions, including five registered nurses who are trained in mental health issues; working with community providers to help streamline the process of admitting patients to care facilities; and conducting debriefings for support and communication with staff following a suicide occurrence.

Coleman also alleges that officials at the Phoenix VA say they have a fully-staffed emergency room and that a social worker is on staff there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; however, an email obtained by Coleman suggests Leon needed last minute shifts filled in May.

Coleman alleges this “email proves they have many periods uncovered.”

Upon speaking out in December of 2014, Coleman said he has been illegally placed on administrative leave even though he is in “good standing” as an employee at the Phoenix VA.

Another Pheonix VA whistleblower, Jared Kinnaman, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, reiterated Coleman’s concerns to Breitbart News.

He said he expected recent events to prompt changes at the Phoenix VA, but that hasn’t been the case. “I expected to see changes happen almost immediately in regards to how the Phoenix VA was going to handle these situations. I was severely let down directly by my upper management,” Kinnaman said to Breitbart News.

He also highlighted the Phoenix VA’s position to staff the emergency room department with skilled social workers 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, has been “demonstrably untrue.”

“There have been detailed emails coming from management (Chiefs of Social Work) that prove that there are many gaps in coverage and the Emergency Department is critically understaffed in the area of Social Work,” he said.

Kinnaman said that, in light of the recent suicide by the veteran earlier this month on VA property, veteran suicide is “quickly becoming a tragic story told over and over with little response from the Pheonix VA.”

“The only way to fix this broken system is to clear out all of the upper management in the VA system. There are great people working in the system and we need their leadership. The employees that have an archaic way of thinking and no drive to change need to leave and allow fresh and new ideas to enter our ranks. With this, I am calling for steady fulltime leadership to be hired for the Phoenix VA Healthcare System,” Kinnaman said.

Coleman agrees with Kinnaman that leadership needs to change.

“Those in power at the Phoenix VA that are caught lying need to be terminated and held accountable,” Coleman said.


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