Laura Frantz has spent seven years and more than $200,000 in savings appealing her removal from the Department of Veterans Affairs on what she says are “bogus charges” of negligent performance and patient endangerment at the W.G. Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, N.C.
Her case is caught in a personnel system known as Title 38, a set of employment policies that provides the VA secretary “exclusive jurisdiction” over any case questioning professional conduct or competence.
The former associate chief nurse, who now lives in Augusta, has taken her case before federal judges, commissions, boards, departments and offices.
Each time, she left with the same ruling: They can’t help her until there is final action to review.
“They left me out there hanging as a professional, highly-credentialed certified nurse with a blemish on my record and no way to clear it,” Frantz said of the VA.
Frantz said her case shows the system lacks “checks and balances” and enables leadership to throw out any employee who interferes with their agendas.
“There is no real recourse for people like me under Title 38,” said Frantz, who after her removal was initiated in March 2007 moved home to Augusta and has since become a Realtor. “There is too much discretion involved. The process is easily abused.”
Practical nurses, pharmacists and therapists appeal penalties to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. Physicians and management nurses have their own appeals process and can only challenge firings and demotions to the VA secretary after he has appointed a disciplinary action board to weigh evidence and make a recommendation.
Final decisions can be challenged through judicial review in U.S. district court.
That is where Frantz’s case remains.
“The VA has exclusive jurisdiction and you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t resign or retire, you’re subject to abuse,” Frantz said of Title 38, which she feels has been used to target whistle-blowers and those who oppose leadership goals.
Court records show she has pointed out examples of “abusive authority,” “gross mismanagement” and “substantial dangers to public health” in North Carolina.
Not long after the VA promoted her to associate chief nurse for acute care at the Salisbury VA in December 2005, Frantz said she requested that outside agency nurses be added to her staff to help stabilize the hospital’s surgery wing, which had been linked to 12 suspicious deaths in six months.
Although executives at the VA said all problems associated with the deaths had been addressed, half of Frantz’s request was approved. She said the VA’s funding of her request looked bad on leadership.
“We have significant problems and we need to fix them,” Frantz said she told VA executive leadership.
Carol Waters, public affairs officer for the Salisbury VA Health Care System, told The Augusta Chronicle this week in an e-mail that her staff did not have “authorization” to release any information about Frantz’s case, but federal court records show Frantz’s removal started taking shape a year after her arrival in North Carolina.
In December 2006, the Salisbury VA began investigating her staff on accusations that it failed to properly run the facility’s Bar Code Medication Administration computer program, which tracks patient prescriptions and documents missed medications.
The VA’s investigation alleged that nurses in Frantz’s unit failed to administer approximately 300 medications over a six-month period. Though internal reports stated “no missed medications were found” and that further review was needed, the VA proposed to remove Frantz on March 26, 2007, on charges of negligent performance and patient endangerment.
“I was being set up,” Frantz said. “I never gave any medications, assigned the nurses who did, nor were any problems reported.”
Frantz requested a copy of all evidence on which the VA based the charges and appealed her removal to a Disciplinary Appeal Board.
On July 31, 2007, the VA disclosed during a pre-hearing conference call that it had failed to provide all materials and substantive evidence relevant to Frantz’s removal. A week later, the VA withdrew Frantz’s removal because of “procedural error,” and reinstated her.
Frantz, however, said she was never fully compensated for lost pay and benefits and filed suit in Georgia in 2009. The case was transferred to North Carolina, where a judge ruled in 2012 that Frantz’s claim for relief was not proper “because there has been no final agency decision” to review, and that she had “failed to exhaust her administrative remedies” to obtain one.
Frantz again has requested a resolution with the VA to resolve her case.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, argues the VA Accountability and Management Act, which would expand Title 38 jurisdiction to allow the VA Secretary to fire or demote senior executives based on performance, is similar to the power the Secretary of Defense has to remove military officers from command.
“Remember the 2007 Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal?” Miller said in the legislation’s defense. “One of the first things former Defense Secretary (Robert) Gates did was fire the hospital’s commander, the Army’s surgeon general and the secretary of the Army. That got people’s attention, and according to Gates, things changed almost immediately.”