VA panel focuses on whistleblowers

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The House committee that has focused on the cover-up of long wait times for service at veterans hospitals will turn its attention to the federal employees who turned back the covers, sometimes risking their careers to do so.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee, during a Tuesday evening hearing, will hear from whistleblowers who exposed the fraudulent practices that have become a national scandal.

This is another in a long series of hearings called by Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who has been leading a probe into mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Revelations prompted by whistleblowers and outrage from members of Congress and veterans led to the resignation of former secretary Eric Shinseki in May.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), pictured at center. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), pictured at center. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

In testimony submitted to the committee, Katherine L. Mitchell, an internist at the VA hospital in Phoenix, described an agency suffering from an integrity deficit.

“Ethics have never been made an official VA performance measure, and thus do not appear to be a clear administrative goal,” she said. “There seems to be no perceived financial advantage to pursuing ethical conduct. Administrative repercussions are lacking for unethical behaviors that are so routinely practiced among senior executive service employees.”

Of course, federal employees should not need a financial incentive to engage in ethical conduct. But there were financial incentives, in the form of employee bonuses,  that apparently encouraged workers to falsify records to meet  productivity targets.

In his statement, Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center (HEC)  in Atlanta, complained about “VA’s “reckless waste of federal funds… for the sole purpose of achieving performance goals.”

VA’s “leadership has repeatedly failed to respond to concerns raised by whistleblowers about patient care at VA,” Davis said. “Despite the best efforts of truly committed employees at HEC and the Veteran Health Administration, who have risked their careers to stand up for Veterans, management at all levels ignored or retaliated against them for exposing the truth.”

The VA will have an opportunity to respond to whistleblower complaints when James Tuchschmidt, VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, testifies at the hearing.

Last month, acting VA secretary Sloan D. Gibson told employees that “intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers — or any employee who raises a hand to identify a legitimate problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation of law, policy, or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable. I will not tolerate it.”

Also scheduled to testify at Tuesday’s hearing is Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which reviews complaints from federal whistleblowers.

Last week, she told the Federal Diary that the number of VA whistleblower cases “is growing almost every day,”

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