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.
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.