Former Montana VA Hospital Officials asking for resignation of director

A new psychiatric wing of the Montana VA hospital in Helena continues to sit two-thirds vacant since it’s completion last Summer.

The VA has been unable to find three psychiatrists to staff an empty unit for accute psychiatric cases. VA officials say they can’t offer competitive pay to make the hires. But former top employees at the Hospital say the problem comes from the top of the Health Center. They say Director Robin Korogi is creating a toxic work environment, and they are asking for her resignation.

VA Health Clinic Nurse Manager Jill Tholt is leading me through the empty acute psychiatric Unit.

“We have a nurses station, we have a rec room dining room, exam room,” she said, pointing around the unit.

The unit can hold 8 patients with serious psychiatric cases.  All the doors lock securely, accessible by personnel identification cards. Chairs and tables here are made of smooth, rounded plastic. Without hiring 3 psychiatrists to work here though, they can’t serve the need. And Tholt says the need is there.

“Yeah, we have people that are admitted up on our acute surgical unit that are in acute psychiatric crises. And when  they’re in those crises they are assessed and transferred to (another) facility…that can help serve their needs,” Tholt said.

Patients are sent somewhere that can host them, like Sheridan, Wyoming. Public Affairs Officer at the Hospital Terrie Casey says they’ve been trying to fill these positions for a year and a half or two years–long before the facility was finished. They’ve been recruiting and putting ads in publications. She says they’re not able to attract people because of pay.

“We’re restricted by law how much we can pay–congress sets pay and the best we can pay a psychiatrist is between $180 and $190 thousand,” she said.

She says the private sector can offer $250 thousand a year or more.

But a collection of former employees of the VA Health Center are coming forward and saying it’s not the pay that’s preventing these hires. They say it’s the atmosphere that’s been created by Director Robin Korogi. Former VA attorney Charlie Hail quit his job at the hospital last November.

“And the word is out and no professional in his or her right mind wants to come work in an environment where a person doesn’t have an MD by her name…is going to tell them how to practice medicine,” Hail said.

Hail joined three other former high level employees this week in telling the Billings Gazette Korogi has created an environment of intimidation and fear. They say Korogi makes decisions affecting people’s lives she is not qualified to make.

“Anybody that crossed her risked being removed from employment,” Hail said.

Hail and the other officials speaking to the Gazette want her to resign.

“Oh yeah she should step down,” Hail said.

Public Affairs Officer Terrie Casey admits morale is not too high right now.

“It’s not’s doing really well to be honest. There are a lot of issues at hand. There are lot of issues at hand and it’s definitely not as high as it has been in the past.”

“These articles, they all point at the top, they point at Ms. Korogi,” I said.

“Well, if you’re the person at the top, you’re the focus,” Casey said.

Casey says some of this is misunderstanding. She says Director Korogi follows policies set by her superiors.

“Some of the frustrations people have had, that they focus on her are maybe misdirected that way. They maybe don’t know the whole story,” she said.

Director Korogi would not comment for this report.

Senator Jon Tester is on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee. He says the Hospital needs to redouble its efforts to fill the positions of those psychiatrists and open that empty unit.

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