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Feds investigate combat vet counselor quota claim

Target 12

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A local whistleblower’s claim has the attention of another federal agency, nearly two years after a Veterans Administration memo about the productivity of combat veteran counselors was revealed.

Ted Blickwedel, a retired Marine who lives in Smithfield, credited U.S. Sen. Jack Reed for getting the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) involved with his complaint about a “quota” outlined in a 2016 document that he claims diminished services and caused counselor burnout.

“It’s changed to a business model,” Blickwedle said. “[The VA is] concerned more about clinical production numbers and visit counts than really quality of care and counselor well-being.”

As first reported by Target 12 in 2018, Blickwedel worked for the VA’s Readjustment Counseling Services Vet Center in Warwick for nine years until he retired that year after raising the ire of superiors.

About 300 centers across the country, including three in Southern New England, offer free counseling sessions to combat veterans.

About two years ago, Blickwedel reached out to fellow counselors across the country, asking about the impact of the 2016 memo that called for each of them to conduct 30 counseling sessions during their 40-hour work week.

VA press secretary Curt Cashour, out of Washington, D.C., would later disagree with Blickwedel and other counselors’ burnout claim.

While Blickwedel said the required number was unrealistic and made counselors cut some sessions short to meet the standard, Cashour said if a veteran needed extra time, staff had the flexibility to provide it.

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Still, Blickwedel said he is still in contact with active Vet Center counselors who claim the productivity pressure has gotten worse despite multiple investigations.

“Counselors have gotten depressed because of this,” Blickwedel said. “In fact, in some cases suicidal. Some of them have sought out their own therapy.”

The Office of Special Counsel investigated a claim that the complaint prompted a hostile work environment for Blickwedel, but he said he was told the paperwork was filed three days late.

The VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) also looked into it but determined in 2018 the weekly session requirement was not an issue.

A letter from the OIG stated “no additional work by the OIG was warranted as VA is expected to have productivity standards for healthcare providers.”

The GAO investigation could be released as early as June, according to Blickwedel.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the GAO actually handles that once their report comes out,” Blickwedel said.

Following the initial report by Target 12, Blickwedel’s complaint attracted national coverage from Military Times, National Public Radio and NBC News.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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