VA docs concerned about retaliation

In the heat of the controversy over the gaming of patient waiting lists for service at veterans’ facilities, about 100 health-care providers gathered in Washington this week.

Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Though a persistent undercurrent,  the scandal did not dominate discussions at the National Association of Veterans Affairs Physicians and Dentists (NAVAPD) conference, but a related issue rang a loud bell with participants.

Retaliation.

They clapped with approval when Katherine Mitchell, a physician at a Veteran Affairs facility in Arizona, said : “No one should have to lose their job or fear for their job for doing the right thing.”

Retaliation from management is a real concern among Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)  employees, certainly the doctors who nodded with approval when Mitchell and others spoke about  the use of sham peer reviews as a way to punish those who complain too much, too openly or to the wrong people.

James Martin, a physician and a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council, told the gathering  that sham peer reviews are a problem in the department. In a later interview, he elaborated, saying, “orchestration of facts” related to issues involving contact with patients is an issue “at some facilities.” Sham reviews, he explained, can be used when management wants to replace or punish a doctor.

Retaliation against employee whistleblowers was again the subject of discussion during Thursday’s hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

During the hearing, Republicans Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Dan Benishek (Mich.), both of whom spoke to the NAVAPD conference, asked Robert L. Jesse, the department’s acting under secretary for health, about reports that VA employees were instructed not to talk with members of Congress.

Benishek, a physician and former VA employee, said agency doctors have told him they are “reprimanded and have this retribution  if they try to change the system.”

Jesse said “there was a caution put out,” an “ill-worded document” advising facility directors to wait until they received data from the central office before they released information “to congressionals.”

That caution, he continued, “was followed immediately by a statement of clarity” indicating that there was no prohibition against talking to members of Congress.

“We get terribly compromised,” Jesse added, “if we’ve got one person saying one thing and another person saying another.”

Miller, the committee chairman, seemed to accept that explanation. But shortly before the hearing adjourned, he returned to the subject, reading Jesse the law that calls for a potential five-year prison term for impeding a congressional inquiry.

“This is serious stuff,” Miller said with emphasis.

Jesse: “Yes sir.”

Miller: “I hope the department gets it.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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