The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VA employees testify about retaliation against whistleblowers

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eye-opener-logo6Four Department of Veterans Affairs employees on Tuesday night testified before a House panel that supervisors retaliated against them for exposing problems at VA medical centers, saying whistleblower-protection issues deserve as much attention as the agency’s recent scheduling scandal.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) reminded attendees at the panel’s hearing that VA workers initially brought to light the issue of VA hospitals falsifying appointment data to hide treatment delays.

“Whistleblowers serve the essential function of providing a reality check of what is actually going on at the department,” he said. “Unlike their supervisors, these whistleblowers have put the interests of veterans above their very own interests.”

Since the scheduling scandal emerged, scores of VA employees have come forward with complaints of retalitation for trying to report the problems, and various official reviews have substantiated that reprisals are common at the agency.

Carolyn Lerner, who heads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said her organization is investigating 67 cases of alleged retaliation against VA employees. She added that the OSC has elevated 30 of those cases for deeper review and that the number of complaints increases “pretty much daily,” with the agency receiving an additional 25 of them since June 1.

Lerner said Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who was appointed to lead the agency in May after the resignation of former VA chief Eric Shinseki, has assured her that he is committed to resolving legitimate whistleblower claims quickly.

VA physician Jose Matthews, who served as chief of psychiatry at the St. Louse VA medical center, said he was removed from his position after raising concerns about wait times and whether psychiatrists were spending adequate time each day providing direct patient care.

“There is a sense of mission that’s lacking,” Matthews said. “I’m really hoping that this committee with its powers will take aggressive actions to make sure that this retaliation stops and that the people responsible are held accountable.”

Katherine Mitchell, an internist at the Phoenix VA hospital who helped expose the agency’s record-keeping scandal, testified that the VA clinics use “sham peer reviews” to “permanently sabotage” doctors’ credibility. “Physicians truly face losing their livelihood,” she said.

VA health official James Tuchschmidt, a physician who left a private practice to work for the department, expressed regrets that whistleblower retaliation occurred during his tenure with the agency.

“I apologize to every one of our employees who feel their voice has been silenced, whose passion has been stifled, because that’s not what I stand for,” he said. “I’m past being upset. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by this.”

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) asked the panel how the VA’s whistleblower problems could affect perceptions of the agency among medical-school graduates.

“I wouldn’t recommend in the current state that people get a job at the VA until professional work environment and whistleblower protections improve,” Mitchell said. She later clarified that she finds the agency’s mission fulfilling and that she isn’t looking for work elsewhere, adding that she only wants graduates to be clear-eyed about the agency’s current administrative culture.

Miller said he has directed his staff to draft legislation that would strengthen VA whistleblower protections, but Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), the panel’s ranking member, cautioned that change will have to come from the agency’s leaders.

“It cannot be done legislatively and it cannot be done by throwing additional resources at it,” Michaud said. “Talk is cheap. Real solutions are hard to find.”

Among the other witnesses at the hearing was Christian Head, a physician and quality-assurance official for the VA’s Los Angeles health system, who said one of his bosses used an embarrassing slideshow presentation to punish him for aiding an investigation of her alleged time-card abuses. He said the supervisor is still serving in the same capacity for the VA, even though an inspector general recommended that she be removed.

Head held up a copy of one slide that his supervisor showed at the event. It contained a picture of him on his phone, and it said: “If all else fails, he reports you to the inspector general at the VA.”

“In front of 300 individuals, I was labeled a rat,” the physician said. “I was labeled the person who ratted out this person.”

Head said another slide was “so heinous that I can’t even show or discuss it today.” According to a lawsuit published by a local ABC affiliate, the image showed Head’s face superimposed on a black gorilla, with another gorilla sodomizing him.

The fourth witness at the hearing was Scott Davis, a program specialist with the VA National Health Eligibility Center, who said lawmakers could ensure greater accountability with VA data by requiring the agency’s leaders to sign off on the accuracy of the information. “Do it in public,” he said. “Do it while the cameras are on.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) told the whistleblowers that they “really represent the culture that we’re looking for,” adding that he wants to see their level of concern for veteran care throughout the VA. Members of the audience and the committee applauded the VA employees after they finished testifying.