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Whistleblowers Tell Congress about Culture of Retaliation at the VA

From administrative leave to harassment and humiliation.

by
Rodrigo Sermeño

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July 12, 2014 - 12:54 am
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WASHINGTON – Four whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs told a congressional panel about the forms of retaliation suffered after their attempts to report wrongdoing in the agency.

Their testimony came as a federal investigative agency said it was examining 67 claims of retaliation by supervisors at the VA against employees who filed whistleblower complaints.

Carolyn Lerner, who heads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), said the complaints have come from 28 states and 45 separate facilities, including 25 complaints filed since June 1 – after a growing healthcare scandal involving falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics and long patient waits became public. She added that her office has elevated 30 of those cases for deeper review and that the number of complaints increases “pretty much daily.”

“Based on the scope and breadth of the complaints OSC has received, it is clear that the workplace culture in many VA facilities is hostile to whistleblowers and actively discourages them from coming forward with what is often critical information,” Lerner told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Rather than using information provided by whistleblowers as an early warning system, the VA often “ignores or minimizes problems,” allowing “serious issues to fester and grow,” she said.

The OSC has received “scores of complaints” from VA employees who claim they have faced retaliation for reporting improper patient scheduling, understaffing of medical facilities, and other hazards to patient health and safety.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who was appointed to lead the agency in May after the resignation of former VA chief Eric Shinseki, has assured the OSC that he is committed to resolving legitimate whistleblower claims quickly, Lerner said.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, told the committee he was placed on involuntary leave after reporting wasteful spending on a direct-mail marketing campaign, backlogs of benefit enrollment applications, and the possible purging of veteran health records.

Davis said his complaint to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors was leaked to his manager, and he was subsequently subjected to “harassment.” He also said as a result of his whistleblowing his employment records had been changed.

Katherine Mitchell, medical director at the Iraq and Afghanistan post-deployment center in Phoenix, said she has reported medical care problems for years. Mitchell said that in 2013 she submitted a confidential report to the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) about problems – 10 days later, she was placed on administrative leave.

“I was subsequently investigated for misconduct because I provided limited amounts of patient information through the confidential OIG channel in order to support my allegations of the suicide trends and the facility’s inappropriate response to them,” Mitchell said.

She said nurses refused to provide care to her patients following her complaints about short staffing at the facility.

“It is a bitter irony that our VA cannot guarantee high-quality healthcare in the middle of cosmopolitan Phoenix” to veterans who survived wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea, Mitchell said.

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Top Rated Comments   
" . his complaint to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors was leaked to his manager .."

Why does Nabors still have his job? Even a typical middle manager in the private sector knows that you don't do this - unless you are partners in crime with the manager and trying to stifle criticism.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
Us Veterans have warned people for years just how bad the VA's brand of Socialized medicine truly is. Few listened.

And now, soon to be coming to a local hospital near you.
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well,that's donkey$h!t socialism for you
15 weeks ago
15 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (22)
All Comments   (22)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
1. Civil service rules.
2. Union.
3. Protected "minority" classes.

Add them up and what do you get?

This mess. This unfixable mess.

14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Carolyn Lerner"
I hope she is no relation to Lois Lehrner.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
Don't let them convince you that this is a problem that is unique to the VA.

It is endemic in every agency of the Federal government.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
Shut it down. Fire all the managers and sell the buildings. Privatize it.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
Do we get to take be their "bonuses" too?
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
VA medical care (I'm on it) is what O'Care will be once IF it is fully implemented. Get that message across to the boneheads that aren't paying attention to this and we may be able to change VA medical care and get rid of O'Care.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The people involved in the off-the-books scheduling and it's coverup need to be investigated by state authorities and charged with, at a minimum, negligent homicide.

The federal government will do absolutely nothing, Congress has no effective authority to punish anybody and the administration won't.

Let the states do it and let's see dozens - if not hundreds - of high level bureaucrats put in prison for a very long time. Specifically, the woman who was the head of the VA hospital in Phoenix where the deaths of 40 vets have been linked to her criminal negligence should never get out of prison and should be sued by the families of the vets, hopefully after the settlement her family will be homeless and rummaging through dumpsters for meals.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm almost positive off the books scheduling was happening at the VA medical center I go to. I know a couple of guys that use the same center and we all have problems getting appointments. It takes a month or more to get an appointment. If ANYONE really wishes to find out the extent of the problem all they need to do is talk to us vets. Simple as that! Send us a survey or pick up the phone and talk to us!

I'm convinced that all the powers-that-be want is for this to blow over - and all that takes is some time. Nothing is going to change - after all isn't the idea of O'Care/VA Medical to simply kill off us old people? We are of no use to the State.

14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
One precaution you could take. As soon as you ask for an appointment, insist they enter it into their computer and show you the record of the request on the screen, so they cant be keeping it off the books. I suppose they could try deleting it later, but that would probably be logged, and rhe deletion record would make them culpable. Beter would be to change the computer system so vets can look up all their own scheduling online, with the computer calculated wait times that are reported to management, so you could spot a fast one yourself.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The key is bringing state law criminal charges against at least some poster boys and girls. In the case of civil actions against them, most likely the government will either refuse to waive immunity and protect them or step in and indemnify them, so they won't be hurt by civil suits. The problem with bringing state law charges against feds is the federal government declares war on your state. 'Becker, you might remember a piece I wrote on RedState about protecting the Republican "homeland." I'll guarantee you that you can put anyone who touches federal funds in jail on some or another charge if you want to and this administration is no stranger to malicious prosecution.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The administration is loath to do anything about this (except maybe insist all that's required is mo money, mo money, mo money) because it's an indictment of single-payer, government-operated health care.

I'm past wanting to "reform" government institutions. As long as they're run by government employees protected by civil service laws and public sector unions, they're immune to reform. With the exception of Walter Reed and other facilities dedicated to the treatment of battlefield injury and illness, the whole system should be scrapped and we should actually treat our veterans like the first-class citizens we claim they are.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
And as a fed employee in HHS for 34 years the "lifetime tenure" is a definite problem and many reasons why there is lackluster and slacker employees. The fed employee has a "Performance Plan" that is set up with required and other criteria of their position which is reviewed mid-year and rated annually by supervisor. It is graded similarly to A, B, C, D, E. All areas of govt have an awards program which usually coincides with that Performance Appraisal. Many lackluster employees who would otherwise be rated lower on the performance scale would use that low score to file a complaint for discrimination et al. So raters are careful how they grade employees. Some supervisors won't get enough money in their pot to give all they would like an award, so he/she rates some people lower than they deserve in order to give a few performance awards. Considering that the Performance Plan system entails awards program, I think the awards program needs to be eliminated from Performance Appraisal system, then perhaps people will be rated fairly. For poorly rated employees, since they have "lifelong tenure" they get away with continuing to perform poorly so supervisors/raters usually give them a C to avoid confrontation. This too is really unfair because the slackers need to be weeded out and fired. There has to be a really flagrant problem in order to be fired. This has been going on for years at DHHS, and now we know about the VA and the corruption in IRS. THIS is why govt needs to be cleaned up, cleared out and made half its size.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The VA is a Federal Jobs program and nothing more. The VA has hospitals in so many congressional districts that it is really very safe from any true reform that would actually help veterans. Everyone is just waiting for the latest political storm to blow over so that they can go back to collecting their paychecks and furthering their government careers. They know that it won't take much to take the heat off.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
It is a major structural problem with the federal government that when there are allegations of impropriety, the agencies investigate themselves. While each agency has a putatively independent Inspector General, nobody who is hired by and who reports to a political appointee is truly independent; at minimum they can make you irrelevant and in some administrations will actively come after you.

My state's government had superficially elaborate protections against corruption in the processes related to hire, tenure, and promotion. Each executive department had a chief personnel officer who had a statutory right and duty to ensure that all matters relating to personnel administration were free from corrupt influence; they had the black letter authority to simply refuse to carry out an action they deemed improper. The arbiter of their decisions was an appointed director of personnel administratively located in a department separate from the operating departments, the whole function of which was to carry out the administrative functions of the government. Any personnel decisions could be appealed to an appointed and legislatively confirmed personnel board. The board's decisions could be appealed to the Superior Court. There was a second line of checks against error and corruption in the unions' contractual grievance procedures which culminated in binding arbitration by a neutral arbitrator whose decisions could be appealed to the Superior Court. There was also elaborate Whistle Blower protection set out in statute. And for all that, it barely worked and was very, very susceptible to corruption because that entire seemingly robust structure depended ENTIRELY on the personal integrity of the high-level 'crats and appointees charged with running it.

Over time the personnel system evolved from one established to keep political authority honest and out of trouble to a system dedicated to getting around the rules to get political authority what it wanted despite the rules. And when that wasn't enough for a Democrat administration in the '90s, they simply abolished the rules and delegated all the authority out to the agencies making it possible to nominally legally hire whoever you wanted into whatever job you wanted them to have and pay them whatever you wanted to. In the guise of re-engineering and streamlining the government, the Democrats legitimized a system of patronage and corruption. And they copied most of what they did from Algore's "re-inventing" government initiatives in the Clinton years.

The labor relations side of things was less amenable to Democrat corruption so they just ran us off and replaced us with people who were so inexperienced that they didn't even know how corrupt the administration's actions were. We old LR hands found hidey-holes safely away from hostile Democrat appointees and weathered the storm. We came back with a vengeance on the election of a Republican and made the people who assisted the Democrats pay, in most cases by "assisting" them in making new career plans. That said, I can't say we really cleaned it up. We did cow the 'crats into being very, very careful about what they did, but in the process, the actual HR/LR policies at the agencies were really about keeping the Department of Administration in the dark about what they did. After the director of personnel's retirement in '05 and my retirement in '06, there has been a steady erosion of power from the central agency back out to the operating agencies. Those congenital 'crats and holdover Democrats really wanted their power back and now two successor Republican governors have given a lot of it back to them. Still, enough change was made that the State stayed out of the news for over a decade with no scandals over hiring and firing employees other than Sarah Palin's dust-up of her own doing over her former brother in law, Trooper Wooten, and her commissioner of public safety. Unfortunately, nobody has made any real attempt to reform the federal government from the free-wheeling Clinton days and it is a vipers' nest of political activists well down into the merit system ranks. If we ever get another Republican President, his/her first official act MUST be firing every political appointee in the federal government; most won't be missed because they're just in sinecures and any government runs in spite of political appointees, not because of them. Then it will take at least two terms of concentrated activity to take out the trash in the merit system ranks.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
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