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IOWA CITY — Four years after Jeff Dettbarn raised concerns about veterans’ diagnostic exams being canceled without doctors’ orders at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City — and two years after he testified about it before Congress — the VA ordered him back to the same unit with the same bosses, and no job protections as a whistleblower.
Dettbarn, who saw his salary lowered and lost patient care responsibilities after reporting the errors in 2017, now wonders who is making sure federal whistleblower laws are followed.
“It’s wrecked my life and there’s no way to move forward because it’s still ongoing,” said Dettbarn, 53, of North Liberty. “They say there are whistleblower protections, but nobody stands behind it.”
Dettbarn had been an X-ray technologist at the Iowa City VA for more than a decade by February 2017 when he started noticing a large number of canceled orders coming across the office printer in the radiology department. Physicians are the only ones allowed to issue or cancel orders for diagnostic tests, Dettbarn told The Gazette in 2018.
He asked the patient safety department about the canceled orders and filed an electronic report. When the orders kept coming, Dettbarn raised the issue with the VA's compliance officer.
On June 22, 2017, a patient came to the radiology department for a scan of a mass on his kidney, Dettbarn said. There was no order so the patient had to wait nearly three hours for another order to be issued. Dettbarn pushed the issue with his supervisor, who eventually confirmed she'd canceled two orders for the patient, thinking they were duplicates, Dettbarn said.
When he filed another report on the issue, he was accused of undermining authority and reassigned to a clerical job outside of radiology.
Turns out, the same problems were being reported at VA hospitals in Tampa, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and other places. An audit of nine VA hospitals, including Iowa City, revealed 17 percent of routine exams and 25 percent of urgent exams were not completed in required time frames. Staff also did not follow policies for canceling outpatient requests due to changing administrative directives, heavy workload and lax oversight, a 2019 report said.
Sent back to the same office
Dettbarn has been working off-site since 2017 and from home since early 2020 because of COVID-19.
On Jan. 22, Dettbarn got a letter from Iowa City VA Director Judith Johnson-Mekota telling him his clerical job was expiring and that he would be recalled to work in the radiology department starting Feb. 1.
“I was scared to death,” Dettbarn said of the letter. “They are sending me back to the people that I reported for canceling the orders, the people who were responsible for trying to get me fired. They are sending me back into a hostile environment.”
Besides Dettbarn’s original reports about the canceled orders, he also testified in June 2019 before the House VA Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations about whistleblower retaliation.
He and a registered nurse at the VA filed a lawsuit against a VA doctor who they said lied and attempted to discredit them. That federal lawsuit was dismissed, but Dettbarn and Patrick Kearns are appealing.
Complaints spur investigation
In June, he wrote an email to Denis McDonough, U.S. secretary of Veteran Affairs and leaders of the House VA Committee, copying U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa.
“I personally feel as if my case has been neglected, I have no trust in the VA,” he wrote. “No one has been held accountable for their individual actions nor the agency as a whole as they attempt to whitewash my entire situation.”
Dettbarn said he wanted to know whether his allegations against former supervisors were ever investigated by the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. No one from the VA wrote back to his email, Dettbarn said.
Grassley, who has corresponded with Dettbarn several times since 2017 and asked questions of the Iowa City hospital in 2018, wrote back to Dettbarn in July to say he was “pleased to hear you have contacted the HVAC subcommittee and others to seek advice regarding next steps and potential course of action.”
Grassley did not offer to help Dettbarn, but that was because Dettbarn had just copied the senator on other correspondence and not asked him directly to do anything, Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said this week.
“Grassley has long fought to support whistleblowers and protect them from reprisal,” Foy said in an email. “He stands ready to work with Mr. Dettbarn and all whistleblowers who face retaliation for shining a light on government misconduct.”
Dettbarn did not return to the radiology department and is in mediation with the hospital to find another job he can do. The hospital has offered a financial settlement, but Dettbarn said it does not make up for wages he’s been shorted since he was reassigned.
The Iowa City VA did not respond to questions from The Gazette about Dettbarn, but said in a statement:
“The Iowa City VA Health Care System does not tolerate retaliation and abides by Whistleblower protection laws. Any of our employees who feel they are experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.”
Dettbarn has since been interviewed by the VA’s Whistleblower Protection office and it’s his understanding the office is going to investigate why he was ordered to go back to radiology and why he did not have a performance review in his current position. He’s heartened, but still frustrated by how hard he’s had to fight to protect his job and professional reputation.
“My initial thoughts on this were to let people to know … what whistle-blowing does to a person’s life,” he said.
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