IOWA CITY

Iowa City VA employee to testify to Congress about whistleblower treatment

Jeff Dettbarn said he was demoted, removed from patient care after pointing out canceled diagnostic orders

Jeff Dettbarn, radiology technician, outside the Iowa City Federal Building in October 2018 in Iowa City. The Veterans Health Administration opened a community clinic in the building and moved workers there in 2017 because of crowding at the VHA Health Campus. (Gazette photo)
Jeff Dettbarn, radiology technician, outside the Iowa City Federal Building in October 2018 in Iowa City. The Veterans Health Administration opened a community clinic in the building and moved workers there in 2017 because of crowding at the VHA Health Campus. (Gazette photo)

IOWA CITY — An Iowa City Veterans Affairs employee will testify before Congress on Tuesday about retaliation he says he faced after reporting veterans’ diagnostic exams had been canceled without doctors’ orders.

Jeff Dettbarn, a former X-ray technologist, is one of three witnesses scheduled to testify about whistleblower concerns at a two-hour hearing before the House VA Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, he said Monday after flying into Washington, D.C.

Watch the hearing here.

“I’m ready,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. My biggest concern is the patients, the veterans getting the care they need and deserve. That’s the only outcome I want.”

Other witnesses include Katherine Mitchell, a Phoenix physician who reported on shortfalls in care, and Minu Aghevli, a Baltimore psychologist who blew the whistle on veterans being improperly removed from wait lists for opioid-addiction treatment, according to USA Today, which first reported the story.

The three VA employees say they were stripped of patient care duties and sidelined after reporting problems in their hospitals, USA Today said.

The Gazette first talked with Dettbarn in October, when he described discovering a large number of canceled orders coming across the office printer in the radiology department at the Iowa City VA. Physicians are the only ones allowed to issue or cancel orders for diagnostic tests, he said

He asked the patient safety department about the canceled orders and filed an electronic report.

But when the orders kept coming, Dettbarn raised the issue with the VA’s compliance officer, who “gave me a song and dance,” Dettbarn said last year. “Once again, it kept going.”

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But on June 22, 2017, a patient came to the radiology department for a scan of a mass on his kidney, Dettbarn said. While the veteran had an appointment, 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 Dettbarn filed another report on the issue, he was accused of undermining authority and sent to a different job. Meanwhile, the same problems were being reported at VA hospitals in Tampa, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and other places.

Iowa City VA spokesman Bryan Clark told The Gazette last year the hospital was following VA directives to cancel orders that were “obsolete, outdated and/or duplicates.” In cases where needed exams were canceled, staff tried to correct those errors and get veterans care they needed, Clark said.

Dettbarn said Monday the only thing that saved him from termination was the U.S. Office of Inspector General and U.S. Government Accountability Office issuing orders to halt the firing.

He plans to talk Tuesday about the canceled orders and how he was treated after reporting them. This will include testimony about government agencies turning over documents to the VA when they shouldn’t and the response by U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst, a veteran, and Chuck Grassley, Dettbarn said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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