The Department of Veterans Affairs has reached settlements with three whistleblowers who helped expose wrongdoing at the Phoenix VA hospital, where details of a nationwide record-keeping scandal emerged this year.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a small federal agency that investigates whistleblower complaints, announced the settlements on Monday. At least two of the agreements involve promotions, signaling that the agency wants to reward employees who report bad practices.
Each of the employees said they were retaliated against for their efforts to report problems. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement on Monday that the workers “followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA.”
As part of the agreements, the VA promoted agency physician Katherine Mitchell, who raised concerns about falsified appointment data and accused supervisors of trying to sabotage her career, to a position overseeing the quality of patient care.
The agency also assigned Paula Pedene, the chief spokeswoman at the Phoenix VA hospital, to a role as “national program specialist” in the Veteran Health Administration’s communications office. Beginning in 2010, Pedene began disclosing financial mismanagement that the agency’s inspector general later substantiated in a 2011 report.
Pedene had been reassigned to a desk in the hospital’s basement, working as a receptionist at the in-house library. She believed the new job—and the new desk—were meant as punishment for speaking out against problems in the hospital’s previous leadership. Pedene’s case was featured in a Washington Post story in August.
“I get out of the basement” Pedene said in a phone interview on Monday. She said she could not reveal where her new office would be located, but said it would definitely be above ground. Her last day in the library will be Friday.
“It feels….vindicated,” Pedene said. “There’s just so much vindication.”
The VA also agreed to undisclosed terms with Damian Reese, a program specialist with the Phoenix VA clinic, who raised concerns about the hospital’s manipulation of appointment data to hide treatment delays.
“VA is sending a clear message: Whistleblowing should be encouraged, not punished,” Lerner said.
The moves come less than three months after lawmakers at a July hearing suggested that VA whistleblowers embody the type of leadership and concern for patients that the agency needs in order to improve its quality of care. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said they “really represent the culture that we’re looking for.”
The Office of Special Counsel said it is investigating 125 complaints from employees who said they were retaliated against for raising concerns about inappropriate scheduling practices, understaffing and other issues. The agency has also referred 51 whistleblower disclosures for further review by the VA.
Responding to widespread claims of whistleblower retaliation this year, the VA has created an Office of Accountability Review and overhauled its Office of Medical Inspector, which the Office of Special Counsel this year accused of downplaying bad medical practices by calling them “harmless errors.”
“At VA, we take whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement on Monday. “We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first and honor VA’s core values of ‘integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.’”
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in a statement on Monday that the VA needs to do more than award settlements to fix its culture of cover-ups.
“Until VA officials at all levels take aggressive action to fire all managers who have sought to punish employees for exposing fraud, waste and abuse within the system, I have no confidence VA’s shameful treatment of whistleblowers will end any time soon,” Miller said.