This week’s “Whistleblower Spotlight” features Christopher Kirkpatrick, the 38-year old clinical psychologist who took his own life after being fired from the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center for complaining about the treatment of his patients there. Kirkpatrick would appear to be just one of the scores of whistleblowers who have been retaliated against for stepping up to report on the gross mistreatment of our veterans within our failing VA health system.
But his story is perhaps the most tragic of them all. In a recent interview they gave with USA Today, Kirkpatrick’s family wants to make public what happened to him to put pressure on the Department of Veteran Affairs to do more, a lot more, to protect whistleblowers and embrace whistleblower complaints that can improve veteran care. “What happened to Chris is outrageous,” says his brother Sean Kirkpatrick. “My hope and my family’s hope is that people will take action so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
After earning his doctorate degree in clinical psychology, Kirkpatrick signed on with the Tomah VA in rural Wisconsin which provides residential and outpatient treatment for veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, acute mental illnesses and substance abuse.
It did not take long for him to see issues with how patients were being treated there or for him to receive serious backlash when he complained. He was particularly troubled by the level of medication some of his patients were receiving which was interfering with his ability to treat them. When he raised his concerns internally, he was apparently reciprocated with a disciplinary meeting and a written reprimand.
Lin Ellinghuysen, head of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 0007, and the union representative who was with Kirkpatrick at the meeting, cautioned him to be careful. “There is a lot going on here,” she wrote him. “Unfortunately but true — there are employees who are suffering a great deal worse . . . and I don’t want you to join their ranks.” Unfortunately for Kirkpatrick, only a few months later that is exactly what happened. He was fired after raising another challenge to what he saw as the facility’s mishandling of a particularly troubled patient. According to Ellinghuysen, his willingness to criticize how patients were being treated “put him on the radar” as someone who would challenge management.
Before he took his life, Kirkpatrick urged Ellinghuysen to try to institute a whistleblower support system “so that no one else has to go through what I did.” His family is doing what they can to carry out his dying declaration. They are also contemplating filing a whistleblower retaliation action on his behalf. They are particularly troubled by the revelation that Kirkpatrick — and likely others in his shoes — had not been informed and was unaware of his right to appeal his firing under the Whistleblower Protection Act. This is the main statute designed to protect whistleblowers who are government employees. As his brother Sean sees it, Kirkpatrick would still be here today if he had known of this critical whistleblower right: “Chris had sacrificed everything to be there, and he knew that he was being dismissed for retaliatory reasons; had he known he had a way to fight back he most certainly would have.”
It may be the work Kirkpatrick’s family is doing to get his story out, along with all the attention the scores of other VA whistleblowers have received in detailing the retaliation they have suffered, is beginning to take hold. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the national VA scandal. And his replacement, Bob McDonald, has promised wide-ranging reforms, proclaiming he wants to make “every employee a whistleblower” and create a fresh culture that “celebrates them.” Congress is also stepping up its pressure on the agency to reform its whistleblowers ways. And the agency has apparently implemented whistleblower training for its managers and executives while at the same time doing a better job of informing all employees of their whistleblower rights.
By all accounts, the VA has a long way to go in cleaning up its act as complaints of whistleblower retaliation continue to pour in — it remains the agency with the highest proportion of whistleblower complaints. But there appears to be some light in this otherwise dark tunnel, so that perhaps Kirkpatrick’s death will not have been in vain.
* * *If you would like more information or would like to speak to a member of Constantine Cannon’s whistleblower lawyer team, please click here.