ST. AUGUSTA, Minn – Tensions have become so high between management and workers at the St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Medical Center that two members of Congress on Friday proposed federal mediation to fix the problem.
The acrimony became apparent during a closed-door meeting with workers and management at the St. Cloud facility Friday afternoon with U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Tim Walz. Emmer represents the district in Congress and Walz is a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The meeting was arranged after a 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.
The investigation validated complaints of a hostile work environment created by senior managers and problems with canceled appointments for patients because of insufficient staffing.
While Emmer and Walz were diplomatic in describing the meeting, one person who was inside characterized it as “explosive.” Emmer admitted he was surprised by the level of animosity.
“There seems to be an inability to bridge the gap, to get together and resolve some challenges, and I am choosing my words carefully,” he said before a veterans roundtable at a nearby American Legion. “It’s reached the point that both sides acknowledge some additional help would be fruitful.”
Walz and Emmer said they didn’t come to the meeting to pick sides but to facilitate rebuilding a relationship that appears to have deteriorated over the past three years. Mistrust is so significant that Walz said some workers, fearful of retribution, handed staffers pieces of paper rather than speak. Many workers talked of being forced to work on their own time and the stress of increased caseloads, Emmer said.
“Either you are very, very happy or people were very frustrated,” Walz said. “It was a pretty high level of emotion. It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of your peers and your supervisors and name a claim about your workplace.”
The mediation is expected to begin immediately.
Union representatives and management both were said to be excited about the mediation process, although time frames and parameters of discussion have yet to be established.
“There’s going to be a lot of people watching what comes out of this,” Walz said.
The latest issue began with complaints to the inspector general’s telephone hot line after five providers resigned in a little over a month’s time 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 St. Cloud VA has said the hospital has since addressed the issues by hiring more staff and reducing patient loads. It has also conducted more town hall meetings and forums between employees and managers.
Emmer said that, despite the acrimony, there did not appear to be an impact on patient care, although new numbers presented to the congressmen showed that the caseloads of some primary care providers had actually increased.
“We haven’t been given anything that shows that this has impacted outcomes of treatment received by our veterans at the St. Cloud VA,” he said. “What we might learn as we go through the process may be a different story.”