VA whistleblowers describe in detail a culture of retaliation

You know those four Veterans Affairs whistleblowers who testified that they’d been harassed, humiliated, reassigned, investigated and painted as unstable? They don’t even have stories that are out of the ordinary, according to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

On the contrary, Miller called the four seated before him at a Tuesday night hearing that went on past midnight “a representative sample of the hundreds of VA whistleblowers who’ve contacted our committee” in recent months to report retaliation against agency employees who exposed long wait times, falsified records and other problems so serious that veterans may have died as a result.

As a nurse, an internist and finally co-director of the emergency room, Katherine L. Mitchell has worked for 16 years at the Phoenix VA hospital where dozens of patients did die waiting for care, although officials have said it’s unclear whether the delays caused the deaths. Mitchell was suspended and demoted after reporting that the ER was so dangerously understaffed that heart attacks, strokes and internal bleeding were being overlooked. It would be safer to close the place, she said; she was right, unfortunately. But if you’re guessing that exposing the agency’s record-keeping scandal won her the gratitude of her bosses, glad there weren’t more deaths on their watch, think again. In fact, those who busted her are still in place.

Jose Matthews was chief of psychiatry at a VA hospital in St. Louis before he reported problems with both record-keeping and care, and he was forced out of that job, too — not fired, mind you, but not able to do his work, either.

“Anyone involved in patient care enjoys almost lifetime tenure” in the VA, he told the panel. The single best question of the night came from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who asked Matthews if making it easier to fire retaliators wouldn’t also make it easier to fire whistleblowers.

Matthews didn’t exactly quake at the prospect of being terminated instead of being kept around and tortured: “They already professionally assassinated me,’’ he said. And like the other whistleblowers who testified, he seemed most upset about how all the infighting had hurt his patients.

He said he knew one veteran who had committed suicide while waiting for care. Another man, whom he had called after running across the man’s unfinished application, told Matthews he’d been in such bad health that he took the day off work and made the 90-minute drive to the hospital — desperate to be seen.

Instead, he spent hours filling out paperwork, only to hear that staffers would be in touch the following week — which never happened.

“And this is a veteran who served our country and sacrificed a lot,’’ Matthews said.

As all of them have.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, reported a backlog of 600,000 benefit enrollment applications and evidence that the records of more than 10,000 veterans may have been deleted. In January 2013, he first sent up a flare over 40,000 unprocessed applications, most of them from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Several weeks ago, after he e-mailed White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors about his ongoing concerns, he got a response — from his supervisor, Sherry Williams. It began: “This message is being sent to you on behalf of the Acting Secretary and Mr. Nabors.” The e-mail, which Davis provided to The Washington Post, then warned that Davis “may be charged AWOL” if he did not report for duty or “request leave using proper leave procedures.”

Just hours before the hearing, Davis said, he finally heard back from the VA that Williams “wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the White House,’’ he said in a Wednesday interview. “How did she know about it is the question. And she used to work for [the inspector general], so she knows that’s witness intimidation.”

Davis also testified that as a result of his whistleblowing, his employment records had been changed and he was put on involuntary administrative leave. Asked how long he’d been with the VA, he said, “three very long years. My father went to Vietnam, and I thought this was a way I could serve.’’ He now is on medical leave.

Calls seeking comment from Nabors weren’t returned. A White House official speaking on background said via e-mail that “several WH officials did receive an e-mail from Mr. Davis. The Office of the White House Counsel responded on their behalf and referred Mr. Davis to the Office of the Special Counsel, as that is the appropriate agency to disclose wrongdoing and report allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing.”

Nabors’s blistering review for President Obama of the VA scandal noted that as of June 23, the Office of Special Counsel had more than 50 pending cases that allege threats to patient health or safety. The office also is investigating allegations of retaliation against at least 37 whistleblowers.

As Davis sees it, “I was told to call the common line, the information I gave them was leaked, and they’re not even interested enough in their own reputation to say, ‘We didn’t do that.’ ’

Not only was the hearing refreshingly free of political posturing — yes, America, there is an issue so serious that this is possible — but an aide to one of the Republican members of the committee said that even if Nabors reached out to Williams, “I don’t know if it was done nefariously. It could have been, ‘Hey, what’s happening with this?’ ’’ But whenever you contact the VA, the aide added, you have to understand that retaliation is all but guaranteed.

Christian Head, a head and neck surgeon and quality-assurance official for the VA’s Los Angeles health system, testified that a supervisor had paid him back for cooperating with an investigation of her by identifying him as a “rat” on a slide shown at the holiday staff party. It shows him as a younger man smilingly giving the finger. That supervisor is still in her job, Head said, even though the inspector general had recommended that she be removed.

Asked whether anything had changed, in terms of awareness, since the scandals became news, Head said yes: “They’re very much aware I was coming here tonight,’’ he said of his supervisors.

James Tuchschmidt, a top official at the Veterans Health Administration, profusely apologized to the whistleblowers: “I’m past being upset; I’m very disillusioned and sickened by all of this,” he said at the hearing.

Yet the retaliation culture is still being tolerated. And why are those who cared about veterans enough to sacrifice their careers still being punished, while those whose cover-ups had such tragic consequences remain in place?

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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