BILLINGS – Practices at the Billings Veterans Affairs dental clinic led to delays in care and in some cases risked patients’ health, according to a federal investigation.
Billings dentist Kelly Hale complained in 2016 that former chief of dental services Robert Bourne didn’t allow staff dentists in Billings to access a computerized system to log requests for consultation and treatment for veterans outside the VA system, the Billings Gazette reported.
An investigation by the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector found dentists had to fax a form to the VA Clinic at Fort Harrison near Helena for electronic entry, delaying treatment for patients who needed teeth pulled or biopsies of oral lesions, leaving them; to suffer pain for “longer than necessary.” The investigation also found Bourne routinely denied care outside of VA facilities when it should have been approved.
Veterans who were denied outside consultations were forced to drive hundreds of miles to the nearest VA clinics to receive treatment.
In one case, there was an 11-week delay from the time a non-VA dental care consultation was faxed until the request for a biopsy of a suspicious oral lesion was entered into the computer, the investigation found. Hale complained that he submitted a request for the biopsy of an oral lesion for a patient and was not notified that the consultation had been approved, that the care had been completed or that the lesion was cancerous.
Dr. Benjamin Atwater, the acting chief of medical staff at Fort Harrison, reported he told Bourne in December 2015 to stop using the faxed forms, but that he didn’t follow up to make sure procedures were changed, the investigation found. Atwater sought an investigation of issues with administration of dental services, which was done in February 2016.
Atwater said he again told Bourne in February 2016 to stop using the paper consultation forms and that Bourne reported he had done so.
However, the other dentists said they still did not have access to the computerized system. Hale said he filed a request for access to the necessary system and reported that Bourne denied the request.
The Office of the Medical Inspector conducted its investigation in June 2016 and found the dentists were still using the unapproved forms, according to the report.
Bourne has stepped down as chief of dental services, but he remains a staff dentist at Fort Harrison
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is now fighting the VA’s recommendation made in July that Hale be fired for professional misconduct based on allegations that he abused patients, used disrespectful language or conduct and endangered safety or caused injury at a VA facility.
The Office of Special Counsel says the recommendations were made in retaliation. The request for the investigation into Hale’s conduct was filed two weeks after he was identified as the whistleblower in late 2016.
Hale is now in an administrative position, but his work is unclear because the Billings VA dental clinic has been closed since January. Montana VA spokesman Mike Garcia told the Gazette that the Billings dental position is scheduled to be filled in January.
The Office of Special Counsel obtained a stay of Hale’s proposed firing. It expires on Nov. 19.
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