VA physician Jose Mathews, who served as chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis VA medical center, said he was removed from his position after raising concerns about long wait times and whether psychiatrists were spending adequate time each day providing direct patient care.
Mathews also tried to collect data on patient satisfaction and other metrics that would help improve the quality of care. But when VA officials found out about his efforts, he was put on administrative leave.
“I’m really hoping that this committee with its powers will take aggressive actions to really make sure that this retaliation stops and that the people responsible are held accountable,” he said.
Christian Head, a physician and quality-assurance official for the VA’s Los Angeles Health System, said one of his bosses used an embarrassing slideshow presentation to punish him for helping with an investigation involving timecard fraud by two surgeons in his area.
“In front of 300 individuals, I was labeled a rat,” the physician said.
Head said that the supervisor is still in her job, despite the inspector general’s recommendation that she be removed.
James Tuchschmidt, a top official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s healthcare arm, apologized to the whistleblowers for suffering retaliation after making complaints.
“I apologize to every one of our employees who feel their voice has been silenced, whose passion has been stifled, because that’s not what I stand for,” he said. “I’m past being upset. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by this.”
When asked by lawmakers what could be done to change the culture of retaliation, the witnesses said more protections were needed to ensure whistleblowers will not be intimidated to speak out. Mathews suggested that “lifetime tenure” enjoyed by patient care providers should be brought to an end.
“I do not think that the chief of staff or the chief of mental health who just threatened me two weeks ago had any concern about their position being threatened in any manner. So I think that kind of protection should end,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the four VA whistleblowers seated before him “a representative sample of the hundreds of VA whistleblowers who’ve contacted our committee” in recent months to report retaliation against agency employees who speak out.
“Whistleblowers serve the essential function of providing a reality check of what is actually going on at the department,” he said. “Unlike their supervisors, these whistleblowers have put the interests of veterans above their very own interests.”
Miller said he has directed his staff to work on new legislation to protect VA whistleblowers. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) said she plans to introduce legislation later this week that would make it easier for whistleblowers to file complaints directly to the VA secretary’s office.