VA whistleblowers describe continuing reprisals

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At an April 13 hearing, members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs heard testimony from whistleblowers who confirmed that retaliation continues at medical facilities operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. At a previous hearing, on July 8, 2014, whistleblowers described retaliation for reporting inadequate medical services to veterans.

Dr. Maryann Hooker, a VA neurologist, described reprisals that targeted individuals who spoke favorably about whistleblowers as well as the whistleblowers themselves.

“Whistleblowers are passionate people who care about veterans and the true mission of VA: VA for veterans, not VA for itself,” said Dr. Hooker.

My involvement with whistleblower retaliation dates to November, 2011, when my colleague, Dr. Michelle Washington, testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on the lack of access to mental health treatment. Not only was Dr. Washington retaliated against before and after her testimony, but other professional colleagues closely associated with her and with our professional union, AFGE Local 342, were retaliated against, as well. Methods of retaliation included denial of administrative leave, unsatisfactory performance rating, exclusion from department communications, removal of professional duties, enhanced scrutiny of clinical record charting, investigation by the OIG, and being the subject of a formal Administrative Investigation Board (AIB).

Since then, others who have spoken out against management practices or managers who have spoken in favor of their subordinates have been retaliated against, removed from their regular duties, or have left VA under pressure or unwillingly. In September, 2014, AFGE Local 342 members announced a no-confidence vote over management’s sudden downgrading of surgical services and further reduction in clinical offerings, such as inpatient bed availability. Subsequent retaliation against AFGE Local 342 members included non-consideration for internal position vacancies, an extraordinary increase in workload, a noticeable reduction in workload, inaccurate labor mapping, loss of electroencephalography services for Veterans at the facility, and a number of staffing adjustments. (Testimony of Dr. Maryann Hooker)

“Whistleblowers are passionate people who care about veterans and the true mission of VA: VA for veterans, not VA for itself,” said Dr. Hooker.

Another whistleblowing witness, Richard Tremaine, associate director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System, disclosed malfeasance by Director James Talton. Tremaine recounted making confidential disclosures to two VA officials who “communicated every word of our confidential conversation about Talton, directly to Talton that very same day.” Subsequently, officials humiliated him in widely distributed emails, he testified, and stripped him of his leadership role. Tremaine described a “discrediting campaign through open-ended investigations,” testifying that “during my first year at CAVHCS, I had been under the weight of investigations for 305 out of 365 days without a single charge.”

A third whistleblower, Dr. Christian Head, reported that supervisors have continually undermined him since he provided testimony to a House panel last July about appointment delays. Officials revoked his operating room credentials, reassigned his patients, embarrassed him before patients, and moved his office to a closet, he said. (Another VA employee, Paula Pedene, was exiled to the basement of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital.)

Committee Chair Mike Coffman (R-CO), told the whistleblowers, “As a combat veteran my heart is out to you. I think you’re fighting for our nation’s veterans today who have made tremendous sacrifices in defense of this country.”

Carolyn Lerner, who heads the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), pointed to another form of retaliation that takes advantage of the fact that many VA employees are also patients. “In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers,”

Reprisals similar to those reported at the VA have occurred at other federal agencies, but the VA accounts for a disproportionate number of them. According to Lerner, the VA accounts for nearly 40% of cases the OSC receives from across the federal government. The OSC is currently investigating 110 complaints from VA employees in 38 states and has secured full or partial relief in 40. The claim is difficult to assess qualitatively because the OSC provides incomplete descriptions of the kind of relief provided; interventions, such as cancellation of a reassignment, are frequently mentioned but financial compensation is not. An atmosphere of continued retaliation at the VA does not bode well for long-term compliance with settlement agreements.

According to testimony, few if any officials have been disciplined for whistleblower retaliation, leading Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) to observe, “It seems to me if you want to send a message that wrongdoers are going to be held accountable, you actually have to hold one accountable.”   A bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) potentially could do that. H.R. 571 proposes to let employees to file complaints with their immediate supervisors and would require a supervisor to respond within two days. Employees who are not satisfied with the response could file complaints at the next level of supervision, and on up to the VA Secretary. It sounds laborious but could make it much easier to pin down responsibility for coverups.

The bill includes stiff penalties for officials found to have taken a prohibited personnel action against a whistleblower. They include “not less than a 14-day suspension, and not more than removal, for a first offense” and removal for a second offense. The bill also requires the Secretary to charge the offender “a fee that takes into account the costs borne by the federal government due to such prohibited personnel action.”  This is a huge departure from other whistleblower ‘protections’–for example, Presidential Policy Directive-19–that include no provisions for punishing retaliating officials.

A mark-up of H.R. 571 is scheduled for tomorrow, April 21 at 4:00 pm.

[Updated on 4/21/2015]

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Written testimony and video are available on the webpage of the House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Video of the July 2014 hearing is available here at C-SPAN.org.

 

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