Our 9 On Your Side investigation continues into the severe staffing crisis that's affecting veteran care at the Tucson VA.
The doctor who first sounded the alarm is speaking out on camera for the first time and exclusively to 9 On Your Side.
But it shouldn't have been exclusive.
She wanted to talk first to investigators from the Inspector General's Office who came to Tucson during their new investigation that was the result of our reporting, but somehow they left town without hearing her testimony.
Her name is Dr. Gabrielle Korschorke and she is now talking about why she came forward to KGUN9 five months ago. She was hesitant at first because she didn't want to lose her job -- she faced retaliation -- but she gave us the information as long as we kept her identity confidential.
But Dr. Korschorke no longer works for the Tucson VA.
She's a highly qualified anesthesiologist, surgeon, and pain management physician.
Her Proficiency Reports at the Tucson VA dating back to 2004 show she consistently exceeded expectations and continued "to work the VA way."
She left private practice because of her passion to help veterans in severe pain and when problems jeopardized patient care, especially in surgery, she spoke out.
"During my time at the VA, I went on strike for an hour. I refused to do certain things because I didn't have the proper equipment," she said.
And her frustration level soared when NOT only a shortage of anesthesiologists became severe several years ago," I would the only pain management doctor for several years," she said. One doctor -- instead of three.
And that's not all. Dr. Korschorke became acutely aware that the staffing crisis reached into other departments.
"I do know primary care has big problems. I mean it's almost like a revolving door there. Primary care physicians do not stay for very long," she said.
And the revolving door of doctors delayed her ability to treat her patients -- on time -- because she needed approval from the Primary Care Physicians.
"If you want to see the patient but you cc the Primary Care Physician, which was still on the chart as the physician and you can't find him or her anymore because she left half a year ago."
Documents show patients in pain pleading for the VA to improve wait times -- some up to a year.
To keep up with patient demands -- emails and documents show Dr. Koschorke worked overtime for a decade -- often without pay. And when asked why she kept working without being paid, she answer, "Because I love my veterans. Somebody had to take care of them."
But her dedication to provide proper care on time and willingness to voice her concerns often got her in trouble with her VA bosses.
And when she finally took her complaints about the staffing crisis to the top -- Veterans Administration Secretary Robert McDonald in Washington, D.C. -- she says that he told the Tucson VA to "Deal with it."
Cavazos: "Was there any retaliation after you blew the whistle?"
Dr. Korschorke: "Yes. It became a bad work environment."
She says the Tucson VA overloaded her with patients and Operating Room responsibilities and forced her to manage multiple clinics. And documents show management suspended her for about 1 month or working overtime.
"What made me sad is when they suspended me I was the only pain physicians available and a lot of patients scheduled. There was no one else they could send them out to," she said.
She says the long wait time issues, patient care problems and retaliation reached a tipping point -- and she agreed to share her concerns with KGUN9 -- as a last resort.
Cavazos: "Did they know it was you?"
Dr. Korschorke: "I think they assumed it. It was shortly after it aired people congratulated me that somebody went forward and actually got the media involved."
Dr. Koschorke sought whistleblower protection through Senator John McCain's office. And after our coverage of the severe staffing crisis led to an Office of Inspector General investigation, McCain's office told the OIG that Dr. Koschorke wanted to be interviewed.
Dr. Korschorke: "First week, not interviewed at all. I mentioned that to staff and he asked for a reinvestigation for OIG to come back. Gave them my name to interview me and I was never interviewed."
Cavazos: "You never heard from the OIG?"
Dr. Korschorke: "No. How can government really investigate themselves. I think it just shows it does not work. They should probably bring someone from outside to really truly investigate what is going on."
She says she wanted to shed light on the staffing crisis hoping for answers and change, but that hasn't happened.
Dr. Korschorke: "I haven't seen changes. Except they are open in sending patients out for the Veteran's Choice care. Whoever can't be seen in 30 days is sent out."
Cavazos: "Are you saying that's their answer then?"
Dr. Korschorke: "That is their answer. I have never seen so many patients being sent out."
So after more than a decade, Dr. Koschorke says she had no choice, but to say goodbye to the Veteran's Administration last month.
The Tucson VA sent out a press release last month announcing all elective pain procedures are temporarily suspended until they can hire a new doctor. The VA is currently referring all elective invasive pain procedures to private hospitals through the Choice First Program.
Dr. Korschorke has now left the Veteran's Administration -- permanently. She already has another position in the private sector. And we've already received emails and phone calls from veterans upset that another well-respected doctor has left the Tucson VA.
ADDITIONAL KGUN VA COVERAGE:
Tucson VA: PTSD sufferers claim long wait times
Tucson VA: Navy Seal denied care and now in debt
Wives fight for better care at Tucson VA
VA Under Fire: Veterans group blasts VA Secretary
Tucson VA whistleblowers skeptical of fed investigation
Senator McCain: New action plan to help VA patients now
Inspector General launches investigation into Tucson VA
Tucson VA Investigation: How severe is the staffing shortage?
Tucson VA whistleblowers: "Inner Circle" created culture of deception
Staffing Crisis: Is Tucson VA on Washington's radar?
Tucson VA: PTSD sufferers claim long wait times