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Phoenix Whistleblower Sees Possible Return to Work

Phoenix VA Hospital
Phoenix VA Hospital

A whistleblower on paid administrative leave from the veterans' medical center in Phoenix, Arizona, said he may return to work if officials agree to restart the substance abuse treatment program he established three years ago to help veterans.

The 52-week program, which works with veterans on probation to help keep them out of jail, was merged into an existing program at the Phoenix hospital after Brandon Coleman was put on leave following his filing a federal whistleblower complaint in December.

The Department of Veterans Affairs claims the administrative action was prompted by Coleman threatening another employee -- an allegation Coleman denies and which appears to have lost traction since Coleman met face-to-face with VA Secretary Bob McDonald on March 12.

Coleman said the VA's Equal Employiment Opportunity Office in Phoenix informed him the allegation is being dropped.

"I told them I'd love to see that in writing please," he told Military.com on Thursday, but so far that has not happened.

The EEO office would not confirm Coleman's claim.

The latest controversy comes as the VA continues to try and put behind it the wait-times scandal that began in Phoenix with whistleblower reports that up to 40 veterans died waiting for appointments. Subsequent investigations concluded that unauthorized secret wait-lists -- intended to conceal the scope of care delays -- were a problem across the VA.

Though McDonald has said whistleblowers will not be retaliated against for bringing problems to light, Coleman and others say the practice continues.

The former Marine's return to work as an addictions specialist may be in the works now because he got a chance to make his case personally to McDonald when the VA chief was in Arizona. The two met for about 30 minutes at the Veterans Integrated Services Network offices in Gilbert, Arizona, the regional system that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"The secretary was humble and seemed concerned with my situation. He said he will look into getting it fixed and getting me reinstated," Coleman said. "The ball must be rolling because I had a two-hour meeting with VA EEO in which we spent about 90 minutes talking about what I would require to come back to work for the VA."

"I told them I would consider returning if they reinstate my Motivation for Change program, let me run it from a different location and get me some help ... [and] hold those accountable who retaliated against me" for making the whistleblower complaint last December.

Coleman said he had previously complained to VA officials at Phoenix that suicidal veterans' were not being monitored correctly, putting some at risk by leaving them unattended and able to walk out of the hospital.

It was after that he was put on administrative leave based on an allegation he threatened another employee.

He subsequently wrote to the Office of Special Council, complaining that VA officials were retaliating against him for raising concerns over treatment of veterans.

In a letter dated Feb. 19, 2015, the OSC said it had reviewed his claims and was referring his complaint for further investigation.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix VA already had dismantled the 52-week treatment program Coleman had developed, which worked with the courts in trying to keep convicted veterans out of jail while they worked on their addictions.

The VA says the program was not ended, but "fused" in with its existing Substance Use Disorder Treatment Program.

"Upon evaluation of evening programs in the SUDTP, it was determined the fusion of services that was formally entitled 'Motivation for Change' could be modified and enhanced to more effectively accommodate the various needs of those veterans who attended that group," Phoenix VA spokeswoman Maureen Heard said in a statement Feb. 25. "All the services accessed by the veterans who are involved with the Justice system and in need of treatment ... are still being offered at the Phoenix VA."

But Coleman argues there is no way the Phoenix hospital's program will deliver the same level of treatment and follow-up. Instead of a 52-week program, the SUDTP is six weeks of intensive treatment followed by six weeks of follow-up care, he said.

For veterans with serious substance abuse problems that already are in the court system and trying to get clean, stay out of jail and restore their lives, 12 weeks is not enough, he said.

In a March 12 letter to Coleman, representatives from the City of Phoenix's prosecutor's and public defender's offices expressed regret and concern over the loss of the program.

"Your program helped many of our veterans reach their success. We are sincerely saddened by the Phoenix VA's handling of the Motivation for Change Program in your absence," Patricia George, assistant chief of the prosecution bureau, and Public Defender James Leonard wrote.

"Our Veterans Court was not sent a notice that the program was discontinued and our vets have been crammed into whatever program they seem to be able to fit them into. We, of course, are keeping close tabs on these vets and working closely with them, as you did, to make sure that all of their needs are met and that they are comfortable in their current treatment."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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