This week, the Veterans Affairs scandal took a turn for the worse when a whistleblower disclosed that records of veterans who died while waiting for care had been altered to make it appear they were still alive
. Pauline DeWenter, a scheduling clerk at the Phoneix VA hospital, reported at least seven such cases since last October and said the practice continued in recent weeks. [pullquote]It seems that it is almost impossible to be fired in the VA system — unless, of course, you’re a whistleblower who risks his or her job to report these abuses.[/pullquote]In addition, DeWenter said, she was directed early last year to deny new requests for appointments and to hide them on a “secret waiting list.” Claiming reduced waiting times, VA administrators received bonuses and promotions, said a colleague, Dr. Sam Foote.
Last December, DeWenter and Foote reported the problems to the department’s Office of Inspector General.
“I thought that was a saving grace,” DeWenter said. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is it. This is gonna be all over,’ you know? Then it wasn’t. And we were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And nothing ever happened… Nothing. We didn’t hear anything. The leadership (in Phoenix) was telling us, ‘Oh, we passed everything. We’re not doing anything wrong.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re not doing anything wrong? But people are still dying?'” (CNN)
Foote, who says he was harassed, decided to retire earlier than planned, leaving the agency on December 31, 2013, and subsequently went public with his concerns.
The experiences of DeWenter and Foote are consistent with a conclusion by the Office of Special Counsel that VA officials tend to trivialize the impacts of problems reported by whistleblowers. In a letter to President Obama, OSC Director Carolyn Lerner “wrote that the VA and the VA Office of Medical Inspector “has consistently used a ‘harmless error‘ defense where the department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected.”
Columnist Ken Hare observes, “It seems that it is almost impossible to be fired in the VA system — unless, of course, you’re a whistleblower who risks his or her job to report these abuses.” Whistleblowers at other federal agencies have shared similar experiences: disclosures of wrongdoing ignored by inspectors general, promotions and bonuses awarded to officials culpable of wrongdoing, and harassment of the truthtellers. The way whistleblowers are treated across the federal government is noteworthy for its consistency, an indication that whistleblower reprisal is official policy and not the result of a few bad apples.