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Employees accuse Bay Pines VA Medical Center's leadership of discrimination, retaliation

TAMPA — This is not the portrait of life inside the nation's fourth-busiest veterans hospital that outsiders ever see.

A medical chief caught on videotape talking about his intent to drive out older doctors. Workers pressured to collect dirt on colleagues. Patient records confiscated like contraband. A doctor taking photos of a colleague's filing cabinets with a disposable camera. A physician called a "terrorist" by his boss.

These are some of the allegations in court papers that might be aired at a federal civil trial scheduled to open today that will cast a sometimes unflattering spotlight on work life at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.

Four Bay Pines employees, including three doctors, accuse hospital leadership of a broad pattern of retaliation against employees who file employment discrimination claims.

The charges are denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA and an attorney for plaintiffs, Joe Magri, declined to comment.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa is expected to last up to three weeks. More than 100 current and former Bay Pines employees could testify, including the hospital's director, Wallace Hopkins, and its medical chief of staff, Dr. George Van Buskirk.

The trial's outcome is expected to be closely watched by veterans advocates, who sometimes accuse the VA of stomping out dissent in its ranks.

The VA responds to criticism by "circling the wagons," said Paul Sullivan, a former VA employee and executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veterans advocacy group unconnected to the trial. "The VA needs to be more transparent. If they make mistakes, admit them and move forward with a solution."

At the heart of the case is Hopkins' desire to cut down on the number of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints that employees file for grievances about workplace discrimination.

All four plaintiffs — physicians Claudia Cote, 48, Diane Gowski, 48, Sally Zachariah, 56, and former administrative officer Roxanne Lainhart, 38 — say Bay Pines administrators denied them bonuses, promotions, desired assignments and otherwise made their lives miserable after they filed EEO complaints, mostly about gender.

At times, they said, hospital administrators pressured underlings to collect dirt on them to provide grist for disciplinary action.

The plaintiffs, who still work at Bay Pines but believe they could soon be fired, said Hopkins and Van Buskirk wanted to stop even legitimate complaints by making an example of those who filed them.

Van Buskirk "has stated publicly that he considers EEO activity to be like an illness, that is like a plague … affecting federal institutions," Cote said in pretrial testimony. "And the administration has no tolerance for that."

Zachariah said one way Bay Pines punished her was by confiscating records of her treatment of patients with severe migraines because, administrators said, she violated policy by keeping hard copies in her office.

Zachariah, trying to prove other doctors had done the same without being disciplined, took a disposable camera to work to take photos of another physician's file cabinet.

When the hospital's chief of medicine found out, he took the camera away from her, Zachariah told lawyers.

The four plaintiffs describe a climate of fear among Bay Pines' 3,330 workers, who they say are afraid to complain about anything out of fear of being fired.

Van Buskirk, who was hired as chief of staff five years ago, said in pretrial testimony that Bay Pines was rife with unhappiness when he took over. He said it was hard for the hospital to recruit doctors because of the "hostile environment."

Employees, he said, leaked damaging stories to the news media. Prospective employees would receive anonymous packages with damaging information about the hospital, he added.

"At that point, this hospital was in total chaos," he said.

In 2003, the hospital's former chief of medicine was seen on a videotape giving a talk and mentioning how he was going to rid the hospital of older doctors, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs. They say the hospital then did just that.

The same chief of medicine, the plaintiffs say, once called a doctor — not one of the plaintiffs — a "terrorist" and " al-Qaida."

Van Buskirk said Bay Pines formerly had a policy of trying to settle almost every EEO complaint, frivolous or not.

"And I think it became clear to me that that was part of the problem when we came here," said Van Buskirk, who denied ever retaliating against anyone because of an EEO complaint.

Hopkins, who says he does not tolerate discrimination, said in pretrial testimony that the hospital has seen a 50 percent reduction in EEO complaints in recent years. In 2008, 22 EEO complaints were filed at Bay Pines.

Bay Pines lawyers said that the plaintiffs were not targeted and that any actions against them were for legitimate work-related problems.

"This case is really about their fundamental disagreement with the way Bay Pines VA is being managed," said a defense motion. "Such disagreements about business judgments, especially in the context of how medical care is managed and delivered, are not to be second-guessed under the auspices of the federal discrimination laws."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Employees accuse Bay Pines VA Medical Center's leadership of discrimination, retaliation 06/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 7:59am]
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