Whistleblowers Tell Congress about Culture of Retaliation at the VA

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.