A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs review of the St. Cloud VA Health Care System has found that workloads have been so large that primary care providers often feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, adding considerable stress to the work environment.
But the same review found no evidence that managers retaliated against whistleblowers who complained of a toxic work environment. It also said that top managers have made strides in increasing staffing levels and communication.
Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation sought the investigation after a town-hall meeting last year that reflected tensions between staff and senior managers.
That meeting was arranged after an earlier federal investigative report revealed a corrosive work environment and fears of retribution for raising concerns. The report, from the VA Office of Inspector General, was itself controversial. It was never publicly revealed even though it is two years old.
That investigation validated complaints of a hostile work environment created by senior managers and problems with canceled appointments for patients because of insufficient staffing.
After the town-hall meeting in October, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents St. Cloud, and Rep. Tim Walz, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, requested a series of mediations between management and workers. A series of meetings ended in March.
In a July 29 letter sent to Emmer and Walz and to U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, the VA’s Office of Medical Inspector said its recent investigation found that patient care teams were understaffed and that leadership may have been deficient in several areas. But it said any potential health care problems have been corrected.
The congressional delegation had forwarded concerns from whistleblowers about substandard care such as over sedation of patients and using unsterile equipment. The complaints also focused on concerns about understaffing, employees fearing reprisals for speaking up and managers misrepresenting physician workloads to previous investigators.
The new report found no evidence that hospital leadership was failing to respond to those concerns.
A spokeswoman for Walz’s office said they are encouraged by changes made by Acting Director Cheryl Thieschafer, who was appointed to the position in June.
“We value the work of the employees at St. Cloud VA Health Care System and will keep our doors open to any VA employee or veteran who has ideas for improvement,” said Sara Severs, deputy chief of staff for Walz.
The St. Cloud VA did not respond to a request for a comment on the report.