VA emails show rift between agency, vet

By Eric Newhouse For the Tribune9:59 p.m. MDT May 15, 2015


Hundreds of pages of VA emails that were requested and received by Charles Gatlin and his wife, Ariana Del Negro, testify to the growing rift between the veteran and the agency designated to serve him.

There's a "Gatlin White Paper," dated Oct. 21, 2011, which says: "The veteran and his representative, Ariana Del Negro (also his spouse) have alleged that both VHA and the Fort Harrison VARO (VA regional office) have acted unethically in handling the veteran's claims and that VHA physicians have retaliated against the veteran. Neither VHA nor VGA management have found any evidence to support the allegation."

Before declining to meet with Gatlin again because he had contacted his congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg, former Fort Harrison VA Director Steven Young wrote a private inquiry on Aug. 24, 2012, to seven of his colleagues: "I am considering sending the following message and wondering whether anyone finds this objectionable. I don't necessarily want to raise up the issue that I don't see any more value in meeting again (Dr. Bonde and I have both met with them)." Dr. Trena Bonde was VA chief of staff at Fort Harrison at the time.

Based on their responses, Young wrote Gatlin: "Subsequent to the last message we exchanged, we have received a formal written inquiry from Congressman Rehberg on your behalf. In light of that formal inquiry, I have a commitment to respond in a formal written manner to the congressman. Consequently, I think it appropriate to not meet at this time and allow the formal process to proceed."

On Feb. 14, 2013, Koryn Arnold, veterans service center manager at Fort Harrison, alerted her colleagues that Del Negro was planning to call the office of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. "Also for the first time that I know of, she started using foul language," Arnold added. "She started dropping the f-bomb. Nice, huh?"

Gatlin filed a complaint with the Montana Board of Psychologist, the state board in Helena that licenses psychologists, arguing that the screening assessment known as RBANS wasn't adequate to measure his cognitive ability; that staff psychologist Robert J. Bateen wasn't qualified to interpret it because he wasn't a neuropsychologist; and that Bateen incorrectly characterized the results of that test. The board began hearing testimony in that case Oct. 4, 2012, and that case developed a robust conversation within the VA.

On Nov. 13, 2013, Arnold, wrote Dr. Gregory Normandin, Bateen's boss: "Based on the current situation with Dr. Bateen, do you have any idea how many exams he has conducted in the last 6 months? It's sounding like my leadership will at least want a second signature on his pending claims that we have not yet rated. We plan on holding pending claims with a Bateen exam for now until we have a chance to talk about the best course of action."

On Nov. 21, 2013, Arnold again wrote to Dr. Normandin: "We've found approximately 10 pending claims with exams performed by Dr. Bateen. We will be returning them as insufficient as we'll need an additional signature on his exams. I just wanted to give you a heads up."

Normandin asked why the second signature, and Karl Pfanzelter, assistant director in Salt Lake City, responded, also on Nov. 21: "The status of an examining physician is quite important. I will communicate our concerns with Mr. Ginnity (John Ginnity, former acting medical director at Fort Harrison) since some of the information we have reviewed is quite sensitive in nature. Ultimately, I will ask for some reassurances that no statuses have been changed."

On Sept. 4, 2014, the Montana Board of Psychologists agreed with Gatlin on all three issues. In particular, it questioned why a full neuropsychological workup was required to diagnose a TBI, but only a simple screening tool like the RBANS test was used to determine the level of disability on which benefits would be paid. Since Bateen was licensed by the state, it directed him to reverse his rating and recommend a full neuropsychological workup.

On Nov. 19, 2013, Amy Kelly, risk manager at Fort Harrison, wrote: "Think I have the 'silver bullet' found in Montana code that exempts psychologist when operating under federal duty."

Subsequently, VA's interim undersecretary of health, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, wrote Montana Sen. Jon Tester to say that Fort Harrison currently employed three other psychologists who are administering the RBANS tests, adding that they are not licensed by the state and don't need to be because it is a federal facility.

Dr. Normandin, Bateen's immediate supervisor, wrote the VA Office of Regional Counsel on Jan. 13, 2015, seeking legal representation for Bateen, saying "The interests of the United States are at stake in that the treatment (RBANS) was within the standard of care."

But the licensing board decision is not the only issue on which Gatlin and the VA have been locking horns.

On Jan. 6, 2014, Pfanzelter wrote: "Mr. Skelly (Jon Skelly, then director of the Salt Lake City regional VA office), Koryn Arnold and I have all spoke with Mr. Gatlin and his spouse on a number of occasions in the past. He and his wife simply do not agree with the responses we provide to their inquiries. Ultimately, they remain dissatisfied with the process and what answers they receive from any of us. That being said I will reach out and speak with the veteran."

Early in 2014, Gatlin and his wife began wondering what the VA was saying about them behind their backs, so they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all VA correspondence relating to them. A Jan. 31, 2014, response to what was deemed "sensitive FOIA 14-02123-F request" gave two estimated costs for compiling all that information: one estimate was $1,659 and the other $1,456. That was substantially more than the $150 Gatlin had indicated they'd be willing to pay.

On March 26, 2014, Mary Elwood, executive assistant to the VA chief of staff at Fort Harrison, wrote: "I received a call from the caregiver of a Montana veteran saying she got a letter from the director referring to a provider training module for TBI.

She is asking for a copy of this video. Swears it is for personal use only. However, there are some issues with the veteran in question. I am giving this to Gail Wilkerson also and if you could call Gail before you call the caregiver and commit to giving a copy of this video, it would be best."

Gail Wilkerson, congressional liaison at Fort Harrison, responded the same day: "I do not recommend providing this publicly."