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I-Team: VA Workers Say Poor Conditions Led To Complaints

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The Dallas VA Medical Center. (credit: CBSDFW.COM)

NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) - Current and former employees at the VA North Texas Medical System, told the CBS 11 I-Team they believe poor working conditions have contributed to several patient complaints that CBS 11 has investigated since last year.

The I-Team has also learned top administrators have been rewarded during that time, with performance bonuses reaching as high as $18,000 a year.

A spokesperson for Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson's office confirmed she had met confidentially with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, in Washington. Several employees said they were told to be prepared for further inquiries from Shinseki's office.

Nurse Jackie Horton left the medical facility in September, she and nurse Ramona Spencer, who left the facility in May, are among the employees who have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.)

Horton, who comes from a family of veterans, worked at the VA for seven years. Short staffing she said, led to many of the long waits that veterans then approached CBS 11 about.

"The patients become angry, wanting to know what's going on [and] how much longer is it going to be. And there's many times you can't follow up," Horton said of the frustrating situations. "That's a big part of emergency nursing, letting the patient know, and the family know and the reassurance. There's no time for reassurance."

Horton said frequent short staffing forced her to request Safe Harbor at the hospital. It's a process by which a nurse questions their assignment possibly violating their duty to their patient. The filing protects the nurse's license and retaliation against the worker from an employer. Horton said, "Anytime we try to protect our licenses, there is repercussion from administration."

Spencer started at the VA in Dallas in 2007, after working at a facility in California. She severed in the Navy for 12 years and felt a calling to work with veterans. "Those veterans, they just love you to death, especially if you really care for them and they get well, especially," she said. She also struggled with short staffing, and how to handle what called a 'new attitude' from management. "She [manager] said things are going to change around here, and you're going to understand it, or else."

Spencer finally complained to the EEOC after she says an incident with a patient left her covered in blood, but she was forced to keep working with others. "She [supervisor] had no compassion whatsoever for what the moment was about, that I was covered with a patient's blood. She made me, after washing my hands, take another ambulance patient that had just arrived, and interact with that patient and basically cross contaminate him."

The VA declined a request for an interview with director Jeff Milligan. A spokesperson did not answer any questions in reference to employee complaints or current staffing levels.

The I-Team obtained records showing Milligan, and regional director Lawrence Biro, both received bonuses during their time with the VA in Dallas. Milligan has received about $20,000 since 2011. Biro has received about $30,000.

A spokesperson would not provide specifics about the criteria for the bonuses. In an emailed statement public affairs specialist Penny Kerby wrote, "Supervisors provide the annual performance evaluation to the employee. Employees whose performance rating is at least Fully Successful may be eligible for a cash award at the end of the rating period."

Biro left his position this spring. A medical service chief resigned in March, telling staff in an email, "the local problems of the Dallas VAMC, familiar to you all, were of little consequence."

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