AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Two veterans have made allegations that their rights were violated when they were admitted for treatment at the VA Maine Healthcare facility in Augusta. Both veterans say that when they tried to file complaints, those complaints got lost in bureaucracy. David Slagger filed a complaint more than a year ago against a worker whom he says acted aggressively and was verbally abusive. He only just recently received a response from the hospital.
Slagger is a disabled veteran with a brain injury and PTSD. He initially sought help for feelings of hopelessness at a VA clinic in Bangor on February 18, 2015 and was taken to the Emergency Room at St. Joseph Hospital. After waiting eight hours there, he says he agreed to be taken to Togus in Augusta.
"When I got in they put me in this room that almost looked like a cell like a prisoner cell," recalls Slagger.
He says about 13 hours passed since he sought help and he had no food, medicine, or treatment. He was tired and agitated when a worker asked him to put on a pair of pajamas. Slagger refused because he was already wearing a pair from the other hospital.
"And this big man came in, with a big beard, big bruiser type of man and he got in my face and started screaming at me,"Slagger said. "His saliva had landed on my face because he was that close."
Slagger was "blue papered" meaning he was involuntarily committed to the facility because they feared he may harm himself. Slagger filed a complaint about the incident that same day.
According to his records, a VA police officer investigated, reviewed a video of the exchange, and closed the case finding no physical assault.
Slagger requested the video through the freedom of information act on april 7, 2015. That request was denied.
He also filed a complaint with the inspector general and waited for answers.
Next he contacted the Maine Disability rights Center which advocates for veterans, but they couldn't help him.
"You're not the person driving the show," explained Mark Joyce, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center.
Joyce says VA hospitals follow different rules than state hospitals. He says a patient in a state licensed or state run hospital, can file a complaint, appeal, and get a hearing in less than a month.
In the VA hospital, a patient can file a grievance with a patient advocate, appeal to the Inspector General, which is another federal agency, or contact their members of Congress. David Slagger did all that and a whole year passed with no resolution.
"If that same exact instance happened in a state pyschiatric hospital licensed by the (Maine) Department of Health and Human Services, I would then have been able to appeal that, have an independent hearing, subpoena documents, get witnesses have an independent hearing officer," Joyce explained.
Slagger did not have that opportunity for a hearing. Neither did Heather Fitzpatrick, another patient who stayed in the pyschiatric ward.
"I was just mad and upset and I have nightmares because of that place," she said.
In May of 2014, Fitzpatrick was sent to the VA Maine Healthcare facility in Augusta and admitted to the psychiatric ward after going to the hospital in Houlton for a toothache.
"Anybody that came in I told them it's my tooth," she said.
According to her records, Fitzpatrick was admitted May 1st because the hospital staff had concerns for her safety. She stayed in the psychiatric ward five days before being discharged on May 6th.
She was diagnosed with delirium, depressive disorder, and cognitive disorder. The toothache was also documented and she was treated for it four days after being admitted.
Fitzpatrick has a signed letter from the hospital director claiming she was free to leave at any time but according to her medical records, she was kept in a locked ward.
"They wouldn't let me leave. I asked them I said I want to go home," she said.
Fitzpatrick also sought help from the Disability Rights Center, but Joyce says again there was little he could do.
I received a letter back from one of their attorney's saying she could have left at any time and that's the end of the story, " Joyce said.
In a statement released by VA Maine Healthcare on May 2, 2016, the VA says that Fitzpatrick was "in a state of altered mental status (AMS) in the context of pain, depression, overuse of pain medication and possible overdose."
VA officials say Fitzpatrick was never "blue papered" but they dispute her claims that she did not want to be in the facility.
"We were not aware that she was so interested in discharge until after she had left the unit," explained an email from James Doherty, a spokesman for the VA Maine Healthcare System. Fitzpatrick's medical records contain several notes from staff workers indicating that she wanted to go home.
Fitzpatrick says she never got an apology and she wants one. David Slagger did receive an apology letter from VA Maine Healthcare System Director Ryan Lilly but it took more than 13 months.
He received the letter on March 31,2016. It reads:
"Regarding your allegation of an assault while you were an inpatient at TOGUS VA Medical Center on February 18, 2015, the tape has been reviewed again by senior staff. Upon further review of the tape we identified an inappropriate verbal exchange by one of our staff and for that we sincerely apologize. Appropriate disciplinary action has been taken against the staff member."
Around the same time as that letter, Slagger says he also received a private message on his Facebook page from that staff member who confronted him. It reads in part:
"The video looks unforgiveable so unless someone was in my emotional state of mind there can be no tolerance for my action. On Unit 63E I have dealing with inconsistent management and hostile and manipulative coworkers." I also worked a lot of overtime. Those stressors had me in a raw state." I was probably not fit for duty with that much stress being held inside."
Slagger says he received the apology letter from the VA and that message about five weeks after NEWS CENTER filed a freedom of information act request to see the video of the exchange between Slagger and the employee, and about a week after we learned our request had been denied due to privacy laws. Slagger questions both the timing and tone of the apology.
"Why did it take a year and a half to get a one paragraph apology from the center director and even that I question the sincerity of the letter."
VA Officials decline to discuss Slaggers case with NEWS CENTER citing an ongoing investigation into the employee involved in the incident with Slagger.
The Facebook message Slagger received implied the employee was resigning but when we spoke with Togus officials, we learned he is currently employed. VA Maine Healthcare did release the following statement:
"We deeply regret that one of our staff members had an inappropriate verbal exchange with one of our patients. Such conduct is not representative of the high ethical conduct that we expect of all of our employees."
The VA also said new management has made changes so that all patient complaints go to the Patient Advocate which allows them to better track and trend both complaints and compliments.
We asked for the total number of patients and complaints Togus saw in the psychiatric unit last year. They report one complaint since the start of the fiscal year in October.