Exposures by VA whistleblowers shake agency, reveal serious patient issues

Columnist

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a paradox.

It provides great health care — when veterans get it.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

That’s one of the messages from a Senate hearing Thursday into a VA health-care system under fire on multiple fronts — from repeated complaints about long waits for service to unnecessary deaths.

Yet even the American Legion, which has called for VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki’s resignation, finds “veterans are extremely satisfied with their health-care team and medical providers,” according to the Legion’s national commander, Daniel M. Dellinger.

“We’ve found veterans who are happy when they can get care, but struggling with a system that makes it difficult even to get primary-care appointments,” he told the committee. “While a veteran might wait more than two weeks for most primary-care appointments, specialty-care appointments can take many months or even years.”

Each of seven representatives from veterans service organizations agreed that VA’s problems centered more on access than on quality of care.

Members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee were not happy.

Sen. Patty Murray’s anger could be heard in her voice.

“I am very frustrated to be here, once again, talking about some deeply disturbing issues and allegations,” said the Democrat from Washington state. “It’s extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care.”

Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) tried to put the problems in a broader context. He talked about VA’s high American Customer Satisfaction Index rankings, its good reviews from patients and department staffing.

“Do we have enough doctors and nurses in various parts of the country?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer to that, and that I want to find out.”

While VA employees generally get good grades from their patients and clients, there were numerous questions about systemic issues, such as understaffing and unrealistic productivity standards. Yet those problems don’t diminish the seriousness of allegations about worker misdeeds that led to tragic lapses in care.

Reports that VA staffers in Phoenix and Fort Collins, Colo., used double waiting lists or falsified records to hide delays in care are scandalous. At Shinseki’s invitation, VA’s inspector general is investigating claims that about 40 vets died while awaiting care from the Phoenix facility. There is no proof that any of the deaths were due to delayed care. Shinseki ordered a nationwide audit of department record-keeping.

If the allegations are found to be true, “responsible and timely action will be taken,” Shinseki promised.

That didn’t satisfy a number of committee members.

“It seems that every day there are new allegations regarding inappropriate scheduling practices ranging from ‘zeroing out’ patient wait times to scheduling patients in clinics that do not even exist, and even to booking multiple patients for a single appointment,” said Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the panel.

That brings us to another paradox.

Just as it was VA employees who allegedly cooked the books in Phoenix, it was VA employees who blew the whistle.

Once again, whistleblowers have demonstrated their importance in keeping Uncle Sam honest. But does he deal honestly with them?

The Office of Special Counsel, which works with whistleblowers across the government, has 63 open cases involving VA health, safety, or scheduling violations. That’s a lot even for a big agency like VA.

Are so many employees turning to the OSC because they fear retaliation if they make those reports to VA? It’s a question worth asking given the actions of two non-governmental groups.

The American Federation of Government Employees has denounced “the culture of fear that has plagued the agency and negatively impacted veterans’ care.”

AFGE President J. David Cox Sr., who was a VA nurse, issued a statement saying “our members have paid a heavy price for voicing concerns, submitting letters, raising issues in labor management meetings, and testifying before Congress on wait time issues and veterans’ access to care. When they have sounded the alarm our members faced retaliation and intimidation. No one should have to choose between keeping their job and speaking out about threats to patient care. It is time for the VA to take swift action to end this culture of fear and cover-ups.”

Just before the hearing began, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America announced a Web site designed to help employees who want to anonymously report fraud, mismanagement and abuse and “help bring accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

The Web site provides a form where employees can explain their allegations. In bold letters the site warns: “FOR YOUR PROTECTION, DO NOT USE A GOVERNMENT OR CONTRACTOR PHONE, FAX, OR COMPUTER TO CONTACT POGO.”

Like cancer warnings on a pack of smokes, POGO makes the danger of management retaliation against federal whistleblowers plain: “we usually do not recommend coming forward publicly and exposing yourself to the many risks associated with doing so.”

Shinseki said “veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA.”

So do VA employees.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
JoeDavidson
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