The tragic suicide of the wife of a quadriplegic military veteran took a sinister turn when bosses at Hines VA Hospital ordered a social worker to doctor patient notes, then retaliated against her when she refused, a federal lawsuit alleges.
Aruna Jha alleges the threatening behavior began just as a national scandal and congressional probe into conditions at Veterans Affairs hospitals was brewing.
Jha, a social worker at the west suburban hospital for eight years, says in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that she warned her bosses in Sept. 2013 that the quadriplegic veteran’s wife was upset with the VA and that Hines staff had been unresponsive to her requests.
But when the wife, who was acting as the veteran’s caregiver, hanged herself in February at her helpless husband’s bedside, the head of Hines’ spinal cord injury unit and her manager told Jha to “redact and revise” her notes about the September meeting, Jha alleges.
Jha’s lawyer, Steven Grimes, wrote in the lawsuit that after Jha refused the “illegal and unethical” request from Dr. Michael Richardson and Alyson Vanscoy, she was accused of insubordination and was retaliated against with a series of trumped-up allegations of wrongdoing and professional failure.
The retaliation intensified after Jha met in May with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, complaining of her treatment and conditions at Hines, she alleges. Revelations about the deaths of veterans who were waiting for treatment at VA hospitals in Phoenix were dominating national news at the time.
Kirk’s spokeswoman Alissa McCurley on Wednesday confirmed that Kirk met in confidence with Jha in May and that “hearing her story did lead to the senator speaking out on Hines.” Kirk didn’t mention Jha’s case publicly at the time because Jha said she wanted to maintain her anonymity, McCurley added.
Hines spokeswoman Charity Hardison disputed the accuracy of Jha’s claims and said Hines bosses are ”very familiar with the young lady,” but declined to discuss details of what she called a “confidential personnel matter.” Jha’s suit states that hospital bosses accuse her of violating transportation rules for patients, failing to pay invoices on time and approving excessive home care for veterans.
Jha says she was previously highly regarded, and that she only approved the disputed travel expenses for a veteran after another veteran who’d been denied travel payments died while waiting for a bus for hours in the rain. Her suit includes an email in which Richardson appears to acknowledge that “customer surveys” said to be critical of Jha do not exist in written form.
Jha isn’t the first social worker at Hines to allege she was retaliated against for whistle blowing. In August, social worker Germaine Clarno said she was retaliated against for alleging that Hines’ bosses kept patients on secret waiting lists so that they could qualify for performance bonuses.
Hines boss Joan Ricard retired last month after Kirk called for her resignation. Asked about Clarno’s case, Kirk said at the time, ”To be retaliating against these people means that your corruption is deep in your heart.
“That you’re kind of drunk with power.”