Minnesota’s congressional delegation has sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald asking that he visit the St. Cloud VA hospital to reassure workers and patients of the VA’s commitment to the facility. The hospital has been the subject of multiple complaints about the work environment there.
Tensions have become so high between management and workers at the hospital that two members of Congress proposed federal mediation to address the problem.
Conflicts at the hospital came to a head after a federal investigative report revealed a corrosive work environment and fears of retribution for raising concerns. The investigation validated complaints of a hostile work environment created by senior managers and problems with canceled appointments for patients because of insufficient staffing.
The report, from the VA Office of Inspector General, was itself controversial. It was never publicly revealed, even though it is two years old.
Every member of the state’s congressional delegation signed the letter to McDonald, which was sent on Monday.
“We urge you to visit the St. Cloud VA Health Care System as soon as possible to reassure the employees and the thousands of veterans they serve of your commitment to providing a healthy and productive workplace for which to deliver the highest quality medical care,” the letter said.
There was no immediate indication whether McDonald would agree to the trip, although his tenure as secretary has been characterized by a hands-on approach to local problems.
At a closed-door meeting in October, U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer, whose district includes St. Cloud, and Tim Walz, who sits on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, heard from workers who talked of being forced to work on their own time and of the stress of increased caseloads.
Afterward, the St. Cloud VA has said the hospital has since addressed the issues by hiring more staff and reducing patient loads. It also has conducted more town hall meetings and forums between employees and managers.
After the meeting, Emmer and Walz announced that they were encouraging management and staff to participate in federal mediation.
The latest issue began with complaints to the inspector general’s telephone hot line after five providers resigned in a little over a month in 2013. In addition, 26 primary care doctors resigned between 2011 and 2013. The complaints said the resignations caused skyrocketing patient loads and resulted in numerous canceled appointments. The complaints also painted a picture of a hospital where managers were so abusive that workers were afraid to complain for fear of reprisal.
The subsequent investigation by a team from the regional VA concluded that overall veteran care was not compromised. But it did substantiate significant allegations, including evidence of a “pervasive” fear of reprisal among primary care employees and a disrespectful manner by senior management, which had dismissed the allegations as coming from a small group of disgruntled employees. It also substantiated that a large number of appointments had been canceled because of insufficient staffing.
The letter urged McDonald to build on the relationships developed during the early stages of mediation.
“We believe your personal attention to this situation is necessary, and will have a positive, productive and lasting impact on the facility’s dedicated employees, patients and their families,” the letter said.