Staffer says VA didn't listen
The psychologist went public a year after raising concerns over veterans' psychological care.
Published December 28, 2007
TAMPA - Brian Nussbaum said he went first to his bosses. Then he went to the state. He even went to a private group that accredits hospitals.
At each turn, he got little response.
Finally, Nussbaum said he realized no one would listen unless he stepped forward publicly to warn about unsupervised and unlicensed psychologists at the nation's busiest veterans hospital.
His chance comes today.
A public forum opens this morning at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center to discuss allegations that some of the most vulnerable veterans are being treated by the least-experienced psychologists at Haley.
The forum was called by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
She has invited Tampa Bay's congressional delegation, veterans groups, officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs, both national and local, and the media.
She also invited one very nervous Nussbaum, the whistle-blower who went public with his concerns about unlicensed psychologists, triggering today's event.
Nussbaum, 31, a licensed psychologist at Haley, says 12 of 34 psychologists on staff are unlicensed and receive little, if any, supervision. He doesn't begrudge their inexperience.
He just thinks they don't get the oversight required by law, potentially affecting patient care.
His bosses say just nine psychologists are unlicensed, all are on track to get their licenses, and all are properly supervised.
In an interview this week, Nussbaum said he worked behind the scenes for a year to get Haley to address the issue. But he said he couldn't get his superiors or other watchdog agencies interested.
"I tried," he said, "and I failed."
So a month ago, Nussbaum filed a complaint with the Florida Board of Psychology and agreed to speak to the St. Petersburg Times about it, a move that he feared could ruin his career.
"The VA's been a cold place for me since I've done this," said Nussbaum, a Wesley Chapel resident whose wife also is a licensed VA psychologist. "There are people who don't want anything to do with me. People are generally keeping their distance."
VA regional spokesman John Pickens said Nussbaum shouldn't fear the loss of his job and that the agency promotes a healthy exchange of ideas.
"Certainly there's no reason to take any action against Dr. Nussbaum," Pickens said on Thursday. "We value his service to veterans, and we take his concerns seriously. We don't retaliate."
Until now, Nussbaum said, the VA simply wouldn't listen.
Psychologists are under an ethical obligation to try to call attention to something potentially affecting patient care, Nussbaum said.
So it was more than a year ago, he said, when he first talked with Haley's chief of mental health, Glenn Catalano, about unlicensed people.
He said Catalano seemed concerned, said he would get back to him - but never did.
Nussbaum, nervous about overstepping his bounds, decided on an indirect approach, filing an anonymous complaint with the state board of psychology, hoping to trigger an inquiry.
"I didn't want to come out and identify myself," Nussbaum said. "I just wanted to report the problem and let somebody else investigate it. It's not my problem. It's just something I'm observing. It's not my authority to address it. I'm low man on the totem pole."
The complaint led to no apparent investigation.
Then he filed a complaint with a group that accredits hospitals like Haley, but this too was a dead end, he said.
A frustrated Nussbaum said he finally sat down in October for a meeting with Dr. Arthur Rosenblatt, another supervisor, and noted his anxiety about unsupervised psychologists.
"I was told that it wasn't my concern," Nussbaum said. "The response was just, it's not something for me to be concerned with."
Neither Catalano nor Rosenblatt could be reached for comment.
Nussbaum also tried other avenues that failed, including a complaint to the Government Accountability Office.
Today, Nussbaum said, three of the five psychologists at the posttraumatic stress disorder clinic where he works are unlicensed, as is the VA's suicide-prevention coordinator, among others.
At times, some colleagues have told Nussbaum not to rock the boat. Nussbaum said he is no hero, but he couldn't walk away.
"I'm not a veteran," he said. "I feel those veterans who have served in my place in Afghanistan and Iraq deserve the best care possible when they come back. And that's not happening at the level I hope it would if I or a member of my family were the one receiving care."
It came to the moment when Nussbaum said he knew he would have to step forward, identify himself, talk to the media and risk his career to get action.
A VA employee for seven years, Nussbaum wants to make a career at the agency. He likes his work.
"A year ago, I would never have thought of taking this as public as it's become," Nussbaum said. "I'm concerned about the implications to my career. I don't want to come across as holier than thou and all high and mighty. But I couldn't sleep at night if I just did nothing."
Nussbaum, father of a 2-year-old, said, "I want my son to be proud of me."