Reform at the VA? Think Again, Say 'Horrified' Whistleblowers

WASHINGTON – A former internist at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility in Phoenix claimed retaliation against whistleblowers is “alive and well” in the troubled healthcare system and that staff members fear losing their position if they raise problems.

Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, Dr. Katherine Mitchell testified that VA officials have a “vested interest in suppressing negative information” and that those who choose to speak out are in dire need of further protections.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General (IOG), Stevens said, “does not maintain whistleblower confidentiality, allows VA facilities to investigate themselves, does not conduct thorough investigations and whitewashes its reports.”

Mitchell said the IOG’s shortcomings left her “incredibly disappointed to the point of being horrified.”

The quality of medical service provided at VA facilities has been under a microscope since Mitchell and other staff members in Phoenix stepped forward to complain about inadequate care last year. An inspector general’s report released after the objections were raised uncovered evidence that 40 patients died while awaiting care in Phoenix, where employees kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving necessary treatment. Those VA workers are thought to have concealed those wait times in an effort to enhance the facility’s performance.

Subsequent probes discovered similar problems at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. The revelations led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May 2014.

An audit released by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have been forced to wait 90 days or more for medical appointments at the agency’s facilities. About 64,000 more were included on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments they requested. The VA’s stated goal is to arrange appointments within two weeks or less.

The audit scanned more than 730 VA hospitals and clinics and ascertained that supervisors were encouraging clerks to falsify records in 13 percent of cases.

Mitchell charged that she was removed as emergency room director in Phoenix after issuing complaints about understaffing and inadequate training. She subsequently reached a settlement with the VA, the terms of which have not been divulged.

Mitchell told lawmakers that the Office of Inspector General’s report on the system’s shortcomings “inexplicably failed to substantiate bullying behavior within the Phoenix VA Medical Center.”

“This was shocking to me,” she said. “As an employee within that facility for a total of 16-plus years I can unequivocally assert that bullying behavior and other harassment by mid-to-upper level managers permeated medicine, nursing environmental management service and the health administrative service at the facility for many years.”

Co-workers, she said, told her about “extensive harassment at the hands of management.”