The Office of Special Counsel is investigating allegations that the Department of Veterans Affairs retaliated against 37 whistleblowers, including some who tried to report actions related to the agency’s recent scheduling scandal, OSC announced Thursday.
The complaints came from VA employees at 28 locations in 18 states plus Puerto Rico. They include allegations that managers placed employees on suspension or demoted them after they tried to expose inappropriate record-keeping practices at VA hospitals.
“The frequency with which VA employees are filing these complaints is one of the highest levels in the federal government,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesman for the OSC, a federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that protects federal employees from reprisals.
The complaints involve VA facilities in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming, according to OSC.
The VA has agreed to put the disciplinary actions on hold while the OSC investigates the retaliation claims. The department said in a statement on Thursday that it is “committed to whistleblower protection and creating an environment in which employees feel free to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal.”
The department also noted that its employees have “several avenues of redress” if they face retaliation, including reporting their concerns to VA management, the inspector general’s office, OSC, the Merit Systems Protection Board and Congress.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA workers, said the OSC announcement underscores concerns the union has raised for years through congressional testimonies and labor-management forums.
“Employees should not fear for their jobs, their pay or their performance evaluations when it comes to speaking up for the rights of VA patients,” said AFGE national VA Council president Alma Lee. “They are the eyes and ears on the ground and are best equipped to recognize when policies, procedures and initiatives are not carried out at the highest level.”
An inspector general’s report last week said VA health centers manipulated their records to hide treatment delays, possibly with the intent to improve their performance marks.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned from office last week after the findings were released. President Obama appointed VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson to head the department on a temporary basis as he identifies a permanent replacement.
Before resigning, Shinseki removed three officials from the Phoenix VA hospital where some of the first whistleblower allegations emerged. The inspector general’s report largely dealt with inappropriate scheduling practices at that facility, although it said the problems appeared to be systemic throughout the VA.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate for whistleblowers, applauded the OSC on Thursday for investigating the retaliation complaints.
“Whistleblowers are usually at the heart of exposing a major scandal,” he said in a statement. “They ought to be celebrated, not punished, for acting in the public interest.”
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