SPECIAL REPORT: Eugene VA staff fear retaliation

Former and current medical staff members tell KEZI they’re desperate for change.

Posted: Nov 21, 2017 8:09 PM
Updated: May 3, 2021 12:01 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Investigators will be returning to the Roseburg and Eugene clinics after Thanksgiving to continue interviewing staff about personnel issues, medical care and patient safety.

This comes after several allegations of poor practices at the local VA clinics. Former and current medical staff members tell KEZI they’re desperate for change.

Several nurses who currently work at the VA Eugene Healthcare Center said retaliation and bullying are common practices. A former surgeon said the management at the VA destroyed his career. 

"I really wanted to come back and give back to the soldiers," said Dr. Scott Russi. 

After serving nearly 29 years in the military and 4 years at a local hospital, Dr. Russi decided it was time to get back to serving veterans and joined the medical team at VA Eugene Healthcare Center.

"I can relate to them," said Dr. Russi. 

Working as a trauma surgeon near Afghanistan, Dr. Russi said he’s been lucky.

"I’ve been mortared before. I haven’t been in combat...worked at a combat hospital. I’ve had mortars and rockets come at me," said Dr. Russi. 

He said a rocket went through a medical tent while he was standing less than 50 feet away. But he biggest blow to his career came earlier this year in Eugene, when the VA fired him after only four weeks of working there full-time.

"My career has been destroyed," said Dr. Russi.

He said he was targeted after questioning the Chief of Surgery: "I challenged him. I disagreed with what he advised on the cases because I knew that what he was advising was wrong. I was very uncomfortable with not having my patients have access to me...and that was his decision," said Dr. Russi. 

He said management told him he was being fired for concern over his medical practice, eventually citing four cases. He argues that those cases all meet standard of care.

"All six physicians reviewed my cases and all six have found my actions in care provided met standard of care," said Dr. Russi. 

Attorney James Alsup is representing Dr. Russi. He said they've presented a case to a federal law enforcement investigation agency. He said there’s sufficient eveidence to suggest there were never peer reviews done and that wire fraud has been commited.

"Also, there may be sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge in federal court of a conspiracy," said Alsup. 

KEZI was scheduled to meet with one nurse who wanted to speak out on his behalf, but on the day of the interview five registered nurses who currently work at the Eugene clinic filed into the KEZI lobby.

"Absolutely devastating, just for me, to observe what had happened," said Melaney Wilson, a Registered Nurse at the VA Eugene Healthcare Center.

They said what happened to Dr. Russi was unjust. They all tell KEZI that mismanagement, retaliation and bullying are common in the Roseburg and Eugene clinics.

They said this has been going on for more than a year. 

"I actually barely made it that first month...I was so appalled by the way things function there," said Amber Beyer, a Registered Nurse at the VA Eugene Healthcare Center.

Beyer, along with four others, said they left a local hopistal so they could work specifically with veterans.

"I thought it could be a really good system, if they would have enough providers...and then when Dr. Russi came, we were going to be able to have a lot of surgeries being done for the veterans. That was very positive and he started doing quite a few surgeries...and it was going well, and then all of a sudden, they fired him," said Julie Tow, a Registered Nurse at the VA Eugene Healthcare Center.

They said fear of retatliation is keeping doctors away and said it’s impacting patient care.

"People are going to start dying and it’s not OK. We need help...we need staff. We are in crisis right now," said Treva Moss, a Registered Nurse at the VA Eugene Healthcare Center.

The Department of Veterans Affairs gave the Roseburg hospital a one star rating this year; that’s out of a five stars.

Concern for patient safety is getting the attention of Oregon lawmakers.

"I have a totally dysfunctional management at the VA hospital in Roseburg, Oregon," said Representative Peter DeFazio. 

In October, Representative DeFazio addressed the management issues on the house floor. He used Dr. Russi as an example, saying the management in Roseburg pushed him out.

While the hospital looks beautiful from the outside, staff said they have a very different view on the inside. It’s a view they’re hoping, by speaking out, they can change.

"It is the right thing to do...and if you asked me if i’d do it again, I’d say yes," said Moss. 

KEZI reached out to the Public Affairs Office at the Roseburg VA about Dr. Russi’s case and the alleged mismanagement and they have not responded.

In regards to the investigation, they released the following statement: 

"Secretary Shulkin has made clear his drive for real change and fixing problems at va. As a result, we're taking steps aggressively to identify risks and vulnerabilities across the department before they grow into real problems. As part of that effort, we are committed to continuously improving the Roseburg VA Medical Center."

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