Wife of outspoken doctor claims VA targeted him

The wife of a former doctor at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center says he was retaliated against when he challenged the status quo at the facility. This is the second part of a Fox 9 Investigation into the central Minnesota VA where insiders say there's a toxic work culture putting the care of veterans in danger.

Dr. Steve Firestone warned officials the system was dangerously overloaded. He can be heard on an audio recording from a 2009 meeting between a group of doctors and top executives.

"This problem just seems to be getting worse and worse and worse," Dr. Firestone said in that recording. "We've got some real serious concerns about patient safety."

He was arguing that doctors were swamped with too many patients.

"We are working long days under a lot of pressure and mistakes are being made. People have been harmed because there's just this avalanche of material coming at us."

To many of his colleagues, Firestone was a hero.

An insider from the VA agreed to talk to the Fox 9 Investigators as long as the person was not identified. The insider told Fox 9 that Firestone wasn't just a thorn in the side of management, but a nail.  

"He was trying to work on a fix, or to help resolve issues but instead he became the next target," the insider said.

Firestone challenged his bosses about the use of so called "ghost panels" a practice of assigning patients to doctors no longer seeing patients or even no longer that the hospital. Firestone saw the ghost panels as a book keeping trick, a way to make VA staffing shortages look better on paper.

"We have probably a couple thousand patients who are assigned to doctors who haven't worked here in years," Firestone said of the ghost panels.

He believed assigning patients to physicians no longer there, gave the appearance that the rest of the staff's workload wasn't so outrageous and more in line with VA recommended safety levels.

Medical Center Director, Barry Bahl was also recorded of meeting in the 2009 meeting saying, "You guys are obsessed with this ghost panel stuff, don't even fret, don't even think about it."

But the reality of the ghost panels in Firestone's view was he and his co-workers each saw hundreds more patients, raising the risk of mistakes happening and veterans getting hurt.

"He had such dread and anxiety about those that it made my stomach hurt just listening to him. And that is when I first started worrying he could lose his job over this," said his wife Sheila Kelleher.

Firestone continued to speak out. He was the first physician at the St. Cloud VA to become a union steward which, according to his wife, he did for his own protection.

"Look my husband was not perfect, and as his wife I get to stand first in line to say so, but he did not deserve the treatment he received at the hands of primary care management at the St. Cloud VA." said Kelleher.

She went on to say that her husband believed management was twisting and manipulating facts about little things he'd done to retaliate against him.

"So for example, a flat tire on the way to work and arriving late to work became neglect of duty and putting his vehicle ahead of the care of his patients," Kelleher recalled.

Records show when the union asked him to work 4 days a month on union business, management cut his pay by 20% because he wasn't in clinic. He appealed the action.

"It went all the way up to the federal labor relations authority and it was determined to be an unfair labor practice," his wife said.  

Eventually management had Firestone removed from the center's Medical Executive Board citing his history of disciplinary actions.

The Fox 9 Investigators asked St. Cloud VA management for an on camera interview to talk about Dr. Firestone, but they declined.  In a prepared statement they said, "We strongly refute the allegation that disciplinary actions were related to retaliation."

A former patient Fox 9 spoke with talked his experiences with Firestone.

"He was a good doctor, he'd sit there and listen to you. He would take the time with me," Mike Lanctot remembered.

Like dozens of other doctors, the stress of the work environment at the St. Cloud VA, eventually drove Firestone to leave in 2014.  He took another job on the east coast but within months died from aggressive brain cancer.

His wife says she purposely held off telling his story until now because she too feared retaliation.

"I was afraid that management in primary care at the St. Cloud VA would somehow prevent me from getting the survivor benefits and health care insurance that I needed through my husband's retirement," said Kelleher.

She's kept in touch with her husband's coworkers who've told her things are still bad at the St. Cloud VA.  They encouraged her to tell his story to draw attention to the ongoing problems.