PALO ALTO, Calif. - A social worker says crucial care for some cancer patients at a Bay Area VA facility has been delayed. She says when she documented the delays for her superiors, she was punished.
When her own son joined the Navy, Karen Chwick decided she wanted to serve the country as well. "I sold my house, closed my business, sold everything I own and moved to California."
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Karen went from advocating for the mentally ill in Miami to social work for veterans in Palo Alto. "I feel our vets have sacrificed and deserve the care," she said.
As a social worker for the Palo Alto VA hospital, Karen helps veterans with cancer. She helps them navigate a very complex system called Veterans Choice which is supposed to provide community-based care when the veteran can't get proper treatment though the VA.
Palo Alto does not offer radiation treatment so 100 percent of vets who need radiation are referred to the community.
Karen says since August, some of her Veterans Choice referrals for radiation are being repeatedly denied or delayed.
Meanwhile, veterans wait for radiation and express frustration to Karen who says many of them are getting sicker. These are vets who are often too ill for other types of treatment or need radiation before receiving surgery or chemotherapy.
Karen says In response to her aggressive advocacy, she received emails from her superiors banning her from patient meetings and ordering her to a disciplinary hearing.
"Now, she's being put in a position where she has to defend her job, she has to defend her integrity...all because she's trying to advocate for veterans and better patient care," said Natalie Khawam. "That's part of the system and she retained our firm and when they saw she retained our firm, they didn't give her the hearing. They went behind the back door and gave her a low score for performance."
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After that performance review, Karen and her attorney filed a whistleblower complaint with the office of special counsel alleging mismanagement and violation of law and providing emails showing Karen's attempts to get veterans their radiation referrals.
A spokesman for the VA told me he's not at liberty to discuss any personnel issues but provided me with numbers, he says show the Palo Alto VA is within current guidelines that allow the VA 30 days to get veterans referrals for community care.
According to that data: for the last four months of 2017, September referrals took on average 9 days.
In October, the average was 22 days.
In November, the average was 25.5 days.
In December, the average was 17 days.
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The spokesman went on to say, "VA Palo Alto is always working hard to improve systems that may be having issues and in no way do we feel we are perfect. However, the data provided shows the process is working properly as we strive to continue providing veterans the care they need in a timely manner," said Damian Mcgee of VA Public Affairs.
After the conversation with the VA, Karen got a memo saying the disciplinary issues were considered resolved and she was allowed back into patient meetings, however, she says has never been able to address those discipline issues, is still working with patients beyond five weeks and waiting for radiation.
"The harm that is happening here is happening to our veterans," said Khawam.
"Delays are still happening despite all of this but of course I will continue on...and advocate and to adhere to the core values of the US Department of Veterans Affairs because it actually has meaning to me. It's not something I just wear on my name badge," Karen concluded.
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