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Whistleblower who says he was forced to retire as VA surgeon is temporarily reinstated

VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System - West Los Angeles Medical Center. (Veterans Health/Flickr)
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A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor who claimed his supervisors forced him to retire after he warned of anesthesiologists making near-fatal mistakes during surgeries was temporarily reinstated to his job, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced Tuesday.

Dr. Robert Cameron, a thoracic surgeon at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, will get back his job for 45 days while the Special Counsel continues its investigation into the situation, the Merit Systems Protection Board decided. The board hears appeals from federal employees who believe they were inappropriately fired, suspended or disciplined. The Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal investigative agency that protects whistleblowers.

“OSC will thoroughly investigate and, if necessary, seek corrective action if we find Dr. Cameron was retaliated against for speaking up when he saw patients’ health being put in jeopardy,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner said in a statement.

In the stay order issued Friday, the Merit Systems Protection Board said there were reasonable grounds to believe the VA had coerced Cameron into retiring in violation of federal law.

Cameron has been a VA employee for more than 20 years, the most recent of which the agency has rated his performance as “outstanding,” the order states.

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During two of his surgeries, on Sept. 6, 2017 and then Feb. 21, 2018, life-threatening medical complications arose that Cameron believed were caused by mistakes or the inexperience of the anesthesiologists involved in the operations.

Days after the February incident, Cameron emailed his supervisor and the hospital’s chief of anesthesiology, criticizing the practice of assigning inexperienced anesthesiologists to thoracic surgeries. In the email, he wrote he could not “look our veterans in the eye and tell them that they will be well cared for,” the stay order states.

Cameron raised his concerns again with supervisors in May. On June 22, his supervisor told him his services were “no longer required” and gave him a separation date of July 7.

“Dr. Cameron asserts that he felt that he had no choice but to retire under these circumstances, and, as a result, retired effectively July 6, 2018,” the order states.

When he left, he was the only thoracic surgeon employed by the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, the order states. He had 27 patients waiting for surgery.

Following the decision from the Merit Systems Protection Board, the VA had five days to comply with the order and reinstate Cameron. He’s allowed to remain in the job until Jan. 13, in order to give the Office of Special Counsel more time to investigate.

“Given Dr. Cameron’s terrific track record, the VA’s decision to separate him from employment raises concerns,” Kerner said.

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Last year, Congress passed legislation with the intent to protect VA whistleblowers.

The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is still highly touted by President Donald Trump as a fix-all to root out a culture of corruption at the VA. The legislation created the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to oversee disciplinary actions and investigate misconduct and instances of whistleblower retaliation, but its effectiveness has recently come into question.

Some Democrats in Congress have aired concerns about the office inappropriately being used to punish staff for minor offenses or whistleblowing. Four senators called on the VA Inspector General to investigate its actions.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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