Brown-Waite wants facts on Haley care

Unlicensed psychologists at the VA hospital are the focus of a fact-finding meeting.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 19, 2007

TAMPA - The ranking member of a congressional subcommittee that oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs will hold a forum next week about unlicensed psychologists at a Tampa VA hospital.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, scheduled a fact-finding forum Dec. 28 at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center to answer questions raised by a St. Petersburg Times report on the psychologists.

She is the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"It's important for us to do this to hear both sides and make sure the VA is in compliance" with the law and industry standards, Brown-Waite said in an interview Tuesday. "Our goal is to make sure that veterans are receiving quality counseling."

The Times reported Dec. 4 that a complaint filed with the state Board of Psychology said 12 of 34 psychologists on staff at Haley, the VA's busiest hospital, were unlicensed and received little, if any, supervision.

Three of the four psychologists working in Haley's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic are unlicensed, in addition to the hospital's only suicide-prevention coordinator.

Brown-Waite said she had invited Tampa Bay's congressional delegation, VA officials in Washington and at Haley, and representatives of several veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Brown-Waite also said the psychologist who filed the complaint, Brian Nussbaum, would be free to present information.

Brown-Waite was careful to say she wasn't prejudging the issue. If concerns remain after the forum, she said, she can ask the full Veterans' Affairs Committee to allow a formal hearing to take testimony, either in Washington or at Haley.

Or the committee is free to do nothing at all.

Carolyn Clark, a Haley spokeswoman, declined to comment on the forum.

Nussbaum, who is the only licensed psychologist in Haley's PTSD clinic, said he welcomed the chance to speak at the forum about inexperienced staffers at the facility.

"I'm pleased that people in a position to address this issue are taking it seriously and are taking the necessary time to properly evaluate the situation," Nussbaum said.

A VA spokesman has previously said all psychologists at Haley receive adequate supervision and patient care is not affected. The VA says nine psychologists, not the 12 in Nussbaum's complaint, are unlicensed.

In a memo to employees after the Times report, Haley chief of staff Edward Cutolo Jr. and hospital director Stephen Lucas wrote, "The controversy was apparently generated by the opinions of an employee. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

The memo noted that Haley is a highly regarded teaching hospital and that supervision of "trainees" and others was critical to Haley's ability to provide excellent health care.

Nussbaum, however, noted in an interview that the unlicensed psychologists occupy staff positions and provide important patient care.

In some cases, unlicensed psychologists work at clinics 45 miles from Haley, though they are technically part of Haley's staff, and their supervisor rarely sees them face to face, Nussbaum said in his complaint.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or 813 226-3436.