Some whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they were demoted, then moved into windowless storage rooms, or basements. Others found their medical backgrounds scrutinized, and even their mental health and personal lives investigated. Even after their cases were cleared, those who retaliate against them were rarely if ever punished, they say.
This is the tortured life described by whistleblowers in the VA. The agency has the highest number of complaints of any agency in the federal government, higher than the Department of Defense, which has twice the number of employees, officials told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a contentious two-and-a-hour hearing on Monday.
VA employees said that despite promises of change by VA Secretary Bob McDonald, sounding the alarm on problems turns whistleblowers into an enemy to be silenced and hidden.
“Isolate. Then defame. Moving me to a storage bin makes me feel bad, but they are sending a message. They are trying to suppress [whistleblowers’] willingness to try to make a better life for these veterans,” said an emotional Dr. Christian Head, who reported to Congress about patient wait time coverups at the VA’s Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System.
For his efforts, the locks were changed to his office, he was moved to a “tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized office” and at one point he was nearly turned away from an operating room while his patient was under anesthesia, he said.
When he complained to his supervisors, he told lawmakers, one supervisor lashed out, “If you don’t like it, you’re a whistleblower, take it to Congress.”
He was one of three whistleblowers who spoke to the committee, sharing harrowing experiences of being ostracized and punished for sharing concerns about senior managers fudging data and veterans growing sicker and in some cases dying while waiting for care.
It’s been a year since Head and a group whistleblowers first came forward to expose the wait times. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the national scandal. His replacement, McDonald, has promised wide-ranging reforms at the VA. He announced that he wanted to make “every employee a whistleblower” and create a fresh culture that “celebrates them.”
But congressional leaders say they are fustrated by the pace of reform and how the VA has been slow to punish those who retaliated against the whistleblowers.
“The hostility they receive for their conscientious behavior shows that the retaliatory culture, where whistleblowers are castigated for bringing problems to light, is still very much alive and well in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, (R-Colo.) said. “The truth of the matter is, the Congress needs whistleblowers within federal agencies to help identify problems on the ground in order to remain properly informed for the development of effective legislation.”
“It seems to me if you want to send a message that wrongdoers are going to be held accountable, you actually have to hold one accountable,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, (D-N.Y.)
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims, said it has received 111 VA reprisal cases involving health and safety issues across 36 states plus the District and Puerto Rico since McDonald became secretary in July.
Special Counsel head Carolyn Lerner told Congress that more than 25 VA whistleblowers have received legal settlements for retaliations related to the scandal and about 120 cases are still pending.
Still she expects 40 percent of the agency’s cases to come from the VA this year, far more than from any other agency.
“The numbers are bad,” she said. “Despite this significant progress, the number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming. Our staff is completely overwhelmed by work.”
Meghan Flanz, the VA’s director of accountability review, told members of a House subcommittee, “The department still has work to do.”
Under questioning, Flanz said only three senior VA managers who retaliated against whistleblowers have been fired.
“VA is still working toward the full culture change we must achieve to ensure all employees feel safe disclosing problems,” Flanz said in her written testimony.
Lerner said part of the problem in the VA is that the whistleblowers themselves become the subjects of internal investigations while their complaints are shoved aside.
Also testifying was Richard Tremaine, a director at the Central Alabama VA, who said he felt as if he was on trial after he raises concerns about scheduling manipulations.
“Retaliation — that seems to be the first step whenever a whistleblower comes forward,” Tremaine said.