The Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System currently employs two paid staff dentists, though just one of them is practicing.
The VA hired the new full-time dentist in December, according to Montana VA Assistant Director Kirby Osler. After a few weeks of training at Fort Harrison near Helena, he began taking patients in Billings.
“Probably about three weeks later, he came down to Billings and got set up in the clinic here and began seeing people,” Osler said.
The Billings VA clinic went through much of 2017 without a working staff dentist, which caused headaches for patients. Some veterans needing routine dental care were referred to the VA clinic in Sheridan, Wyoming, which is 128 miles away.
The Billings VA clinic's dentist position wasn't vacant, however. Dr. Kelly Hale remains there as a paid staff member but has been barred from practicing since January 2017 as the government reviews his whistleblower retaliation case.
While working as the staff dentist at the Billings VA clinic, Hale's allegations exposed systemic delays that sometimes caused painful wait times for patients. An internal investigation backed up Hale's claims in June 2016.
The findings led to the resignation of Dr. Robert Bourne, the Montana VA's chief of dental services, though the VA quickly rehired him on a fee basis with a $143,700 annual earning limit.
On Dec. 9, 2016, Montana VA Director Kathy Berger ordered a misconduct review of Hale, according to documents obtained by The Gazette. The VA later ordered Hale's termination for misconduct described as abuse of patients, disrespectful language or conduct and endangering the safety or causing injury at a VA facility.
But Hale's misconduct review may have been retaliatory, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Berger requested the investigation just weeks after Hale was identified as the whistleblower, the OSC said in case documents.
The Merit Systems Protection Board is still reviewing the whistleblower retaliation case.
While that's ongoing, Hale's termination has been put on hold. Since January 2017, Hale has been a paid employee but unable to see patients. His salary was $176,399 in 2017.
The VA hasn't commented specifically on what Hale does instead, and the department declined to release administrators' emails about Hale. His status is transitory.
“He is still employed with VA Montana and he does not have privileges in the clinic,” Osler said.
Hale has declined to comment on his situation.
The hiring of a new dentist does bring VA dental service back to Billings for area veterans. Osler said that the new dentist is working through a patient backlog with the help of outside referrals through the Veterans Choice Program.
“We're still working with our Choice Program and different things," he said. "It is helping to reduce that and expedite that care.”