FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The whistleblower behind the federal investigation of the Fort Collins Veterans Affairs clinic said she was put on two-week unpaid leave for not "cooking the books" when scheduling appointments.
Lisa Lee, a former Navy reservist now on active duty in Hawaii, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan she and another scheduler were transferred from Fort Collins, Colo., in March 2013 for refusing to hide wait times between desired appointment dates and actual dates. She said the suspension came after she filed an internal grievance about the transfer and scheduling practices.
The VA aims to see veterans within 14 days of desired appointment dates and uses it as a performance measure. It is a contributing factor to administrator bonuses, according to a VA spokesperson. Lee said a spreadsheet detailed which schedulers met the 14-day goal.
Appointments in Fort Collins that fell within the desired date spiked from mid-60 and 70 percentiles to the high 90s two weeks after the transfers, according to a report from the federal Office of the Medical Inspector.
An e-mail from an employee the following June outlined how they were "gaming the system" and noted that "when we exceed the 14 day measure, the front office gets very upset." Instead of asking when patients wanted their appointments, they indicated when appointments are available. According to the report, that was as long as eight weeks out.
Lee said she was following policy — policy that Cheyenne Director Cynthia McCormack signed off on — highlights issues with wait times. Schedulers also couldn't set appointments more than 90 days out, even if that was best for the veteran or all days were booked until then, she said.
"Why are they throwing me under the bus when I'm trying to say what the problem is?" Lee said.
Before filing a whistleblower report with the federal Office of Special Counsel, Lee said she went through an internal grievance process. It was denied and she was placed on leave after that.
With the transfer came a decrease in location-based pay. Lee said she went from being able to bike to work to driving almost an hour each way to the Cheyenne (Wyo.) VA Medical Center while earning less money.
"They had to punish us, they had to make us an example to the other (schedulers)," she said in an interview.
Staff from the Cheyenne VA, which oversees the Fort Collins clinic, replaced Lee and the other scheduler.
Turning down a deal
When she started talking with federal oversight agencies, Lee said administrators at the VA offered her a deal that removed the suspension from her record and paid her for those two weeks. The deal was contingent on ending any whistleblowing behavior at the clinic, she said. It was a matter of principle to continue the fight, she said. The idea of returning to the VA didn't appeal to here either.
"Look what I'd be going back to: a snake pit," she said.
She mildly defended the author of the e-mail, saying someone in his position as a telehealth coordinator "didn't make the decision. He was told what to do."
She said his mistake was putting it in writing, whereas others discussed it. The author has since been put on leave, with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki calling that behavior "unacceptable."
Lee also took umbrage at implications she was trying to disrupt service for veterans.
"To say I don't care? How dare they?" she said.
Lee's efforts led to a November inspection by the Office of the Medical Inspector. That report was leaked in early May. McCormack, the Cheyenne director, said the errors resulted from "misunderstood" policies and had been fixed.
Other federal investigators have since descended on the Cheyenne VA. The status of that investigation is unknown. A VA spokesperson wrote in an e-mail Friday that he could not comment on the investigation.
The VA did not immediately respond to the Coloradoan about Lee's allegations Sunday afternoon.