The Hospital on the Hill

A mean-spirited VA medical center director has patient care playing distant second to the bottom line

New Times asked for an interview with Seiler, a request denied by Phil Kaplan, the medical center's director of communications. Initially, Kaplan offered to answer questions, but he retreated quickly when the IG's Office was mentioned.

"You're getting into allegations that were made; they were looked at, and they were found to be baseless," Kaplan interjected testily. "It's already been looked at by the inspector general and other people and found to be baseless or unfounded. That's all I'm going to say about those."

New Times hadn't even asked a question yet, so what was he referring to?

Mark Poutenis

"Any allegations," he snapped. "I know where you're going."

The hospital union office is a cramped den on the bustling first floor, not far down a hall from the busy atrium. At various times during the week, Paula Lang, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, holes up here to manage the affairs of a union made up of doctors, nurses, technicians, housekeepers, and many other positions. Lang possesses a wide, motherly smile and soothing voice, both undoubtedly helpful in her job as a clinical psychologist. Despite the easy-going manner, however, Lang became one of the hospital administration's most persistent and vocal gadflies.

"I started to do this because I was so worried about what was happening here and how badly people were being treated," she explains. "I'd never seen anything like it, how punitive it was."

Regardless of how employees were being treated, statistically, the medical center appeared to be doing an outstanding job of keeping workplace injuries low; the number of worker's compensation claims filed were far fewer than at other VA hospitals in Florida. In fact, Seiler had managed to cut costs related to the program by 10 percent in 1999 compared to 1998. He crowed about the savings in his annual performance self-appraisal that year. And why not, since that statistic is one of the many indicators by which he receives annual bonus money? Roswell even gave Seiler a special award in May 1999 for his achievements in the worker's comp realm.

But workers were telling a different story. In 1999, two employees complained that medical center managers had mishandled their claims, but Roswell dismissed the complaints as unfounded.

There were other cases. In the winter of 2000, Lang, then a union steward, says she discovered that the hospital's policy violated some provisions of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. Specifically, in some cases, injured employees had not been informed of their right to choose a physician and were improperly compelled to use leave time. In other cases, claims had not even been processed.

"I had an employee come to me because he was injured on the job," she says. "He felt like he was getting the runaround. So I pulled up the law on the Internet and pulled up the local policy, and I saw that there was a difference. In the law, if you're injured on the job, you're entitled to have your doctor paid for, entitled to 45 days off. If there's impairment, you need to get another job and get retrained. Workers have those entitlements." Many employees are veterans themselves, sometimes partially disabled in some way. Work often involves repetitive motion, heavy lifting, and sharp instruments. Injuries are not rare.

One nurse's aide, for example, injured her back on the job, which required surgery and a lengthy recuperation, Lang says. "She told me that the documents she submitted [to management] didn't go to the Department of Labor, so the DOL assumed that she'd not done what was required of her and stopped benefits," Lang says. The aide fell behind in her bills and ended up losing her car. Lang filed a union grievance on her behalf and had her benefits reinstated.

David Green, who was serving as both chief of human resources and acting associate director, assured the union that any specific cases would be reviewed and corrected, according to the minutes from a meeting with union representatives.

Though Seiler wasn't at the meeting, he no doubt had learned about the complaints by the time that, a few months later, a team from the VA Inspector General's Office launched a new probe into allegations by employees that management had violated federal law and VA rules for worker's comp claims.

"Everyone said they didn't know anything about it," Lang says of management. "But everything I'd told them was right there in the minutes of that meeting, and Seiler is supposed to review the minutes."

The wheels of the IG's Office turn slowly, but the agency's findings, released a year later, were a bombshell. Investigators concluded that Seiler and other managers routinely withheld information from injured employees about their rights under the worker's comp program. Up until Seiler became director, injured workers had been given an information packet that outlined those rights, but that was discontinued under Seiler's tenure. One former employee who had been responsible for the program told investigators that management discouraged him from providing information about workers' rights.

In another example cited by the report, after a worker's comp specialist informed an injured employee of his right to file a claim within three years -- and the importance of doing so if necessary -- the specialist was chastised by the medical center's safety and occupational health management officer. The manager, whose name was blotted out from the heavily redacted report, became alarmed when he learned of that helpful assistance. He wrote a note to someone high in the hospital administration, saying that sharing such information was "giving away the show."

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My Voice Nation Help

Seiler did the same thing at the Huntington VA. Total disregard of staff, veterans except those on his close pal list.